August 2021 / exercise

Overcoming the Risks of Returning to Work or Sport After Deconditioning

Our Sedentary Bad Habits Picked Up During Covid-19 Stay-at-Home Orders Have Degraded Our Physical Capabilities

As the Covid-19 took hold in 2020, many American workers went into home hibernation as stay-at-home orders shuttered physical business locations and sports facilities. Our isolation at home has had a significant deconditioning effect, affecting millions of people.

We have spent month after month at reduced levels of activity. This has negatively impacted all 4 aspects of our physical fitness – strength, stamina, suppleness, and skill. Many of us have also put on extra weight. Bad habits during the Covid-era have significantly degraded our physical capabilities.

Now, businesses are pushing to get us back into work environments that were the norm before Covid became a factor. Some of us are looking to recapture our amateur athletic dreams. The problem is as we work back to normal levels of activity, our lack of fitness can make us particularly vulnerable to musculoskeletal injuries.

We’ll look more closely at some of the challenges in coming out of Covid-hibernation, and what we can do to prepare ourselves to emerge safely.

Returning to the Office Full Time

Sitting in correct ergonomic position with laptop

As we return to the office full time, our degraded fitness can impact productivity, the quality of our work, and injury claims. Stamina levels, particularly with those who have had Covid and older workers, may require more time to return to the stamina levels that were the norm before the pandemic. We also might return to an office with a subpar ergonomic workspace, which can trigger neck or back pain.

Against these challenges is the stress of worrying renewed Covid exposure in a close working environment. It’s all a perfect storm of factors which will magnify our musculoskeletal vulnerabilities.

Return to Play Issues

The Covid-19 pandemic also caused the postponement or cancellation of many amateur and professional sporting events – and it shut down many practice facilities. This has raised concerns among physiatrists, sports medicine physicians and orthopedic surgeons about the increased risk of injury after prolonged periods of physical inactivity.

By nature, athletes tend to see the glass as more than half full with respect to their preparedness to resume sports – even though only the most dedicated have kept up with adequate conditioning and preparation during the Covid-era – a situation that can lead to a high risk of injury. The reality is that soft tissue injuries attributed to sports activities involving muscles, tendons, and ligaments are on the rise.

Older Adults and Those with Long-Term Conditions

Staying physically fit matters to all of us regardless of age – particularly if we want to live long and vital lives.

But even if you are retired, and aren’t an active athlete, we know that as we get older, or if we have long term medical conditions, our level of fitness is critical. It has a direct impact on keeping cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer in check – as well as on other health conditions. In fact, the older we are, the more activity we need. And the more long-term conditions we have, the more activity we need.

For many older Americans and those with long-term conditions, the Covid-era has provided an excuse to not keep up with enough exercise.

What Can You Do?

If you’ve fallen into the sedentary lifestyle during Covid, here are some steps that you can take to undo the damage and get back on your game.

Start Each Day with a Full-Body Stretch

Regular stretching can increase flexibility and improve your joints’ range of motion, helping you move more freely. It can also help delay the reduced mobility that can come with aging. If that isn’t enough for you, stretching will also improve your performance in physical activities, increase blood flow to your muscles, improve your posture and help heal and prevent back pain. It is also a great stress reliever that can calm your mind.

It is key however that you stretch safely, and in a way that is appropriate for your physiology and level of fitness. If you aren’t experienced in how to stretch properly, ask your physical therapist or an expert who can teach you properly.

Pay Attention to Ergonomics, Regardless of Where You Are Working

You may be working back at the office, at home, on the road, or a combination of all three. No matter where you find yourself, make sure that you make your seat, desk and computer monitor and keyboard location as ergonomically friendly as possible.

Keep your computer screen at eye level. Stretch your upper body regularly to help avoid carpal tunnel syndrome and stiffness in the neck and shoulders. And take regular screen breaks from computer work to ease the strain on your eyes.

Keep Hydrated

It’s estimated that 70 to 80% of your joint cartilage consists of water. Synovial fluid is the thick lubrication located between the joints, giving you a cushion so the bones don’t come in contact. This fluid is found in the joints throughout your body: hips, knees, feet, shoulders, and hands. If you are hydrated, then this gel-like liquid provides nutrition, shock-absorption, lubrication, and cushioning in the joints. It helps to reduce friction in the cartilage and gives you a smooth, sustained motion in the joints.

While daily fluid intake can come from a variety of foods and beverages, it is best to stick with water whenever possible. Stay hydrated throughout the day to help fight against joint pain.

Fit a Regular Schedule of Both Cardiovascular and Strength Exercise Into Your Schedule

If you haven’t been exercising, start slowly, but start – now! Your targets should be:

  • At least 150 total minutes of moderate exercise (brisk walking, swimming, outdoor chores) per week
  • At least 75 total minutes of vigorous exercise (running, dancing, bicycling, cardio workouts) per week
  • Strength training exercises for all major muscle groups at least twice per week

Be creative. If you are at work, consider using your lunch break for a brisk walk, but bring comfortable shoes with you if you intend to do so. If you are a beginner or have lapsed for a while, throw away the pride – just get started, adding minutes and intensity to each workout along the way.

Don’t forget strength exercises. If you don’t use your muscles, they get weak and don’t work to keep everything they support strong. With inactivity, muscle mass breaks down, and it needs to be built back up. If you can’t go to a gym to use weights, develop a safe routine to creatively use heavier objects at home for resistance training.

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