Gautam Rajda, 46, could deadlift 150kg with ease while Suraj Juneja, 42, used to bench about 90kg before the pandemic forced the world into a lockdown last year. Both Rajda, who owns a leather business in Kolkata, and Juneja, a marketing guru and entrepreneur also from Kolkata, continued to work out at home during the lockdown. Rajda set up a small gym in his flat while Juneja turned to a pair of dumbbells and Cult’s online workouts.
But their active lifestyles came to an abrupt stop when they tested positive for covid-19. On 22 October, when Rajda caught the virus, his doctor advised him not to exercise as he was running a high fever. Juneja, who had slight fever and some bodyache for four-five days but no other symptoms, stopped on his own as a precaution. “Little is known about how and in what way this disease could affect you and there were plenty of scary stories going around. I didn’t want to take a risk with my health and life. Later on, my doctor also advised me to avoid any activity that pushes up the heart rate, so I just stopped,” says Juneja, explaining his decision to give up all sport and exercise for about a month after testing positive on 1 October.
“You will not be able to do your regular workout if you have a moderate or severe case of covid-19 because there is lung involvement…which is why you need to be very careful. Severe cases always get treated in a hospital so the question of exercise is out of the equation. But for moderate cases, you can do deep breathing exercises,” says Vikas Maurya, director and head of department of pulmonology at Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, Delhi.
However, those with asymptomatic and mild covid-19 are unlikely to have any lung infection so they can continue with their regular workouts in their isolation area. Those on medication might feel a bit lethargic or tired because of the side effects of the medicines, though, warns Dr Maurya.
Some players, such as top footballers Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba, Neymar or Edinson Cavani, returned to play top- flight games almost as soon their quarantine periods ended—a clear indication that they continued training in isolation. But doctors advise that if you choose to go ahead and work out while positive, you should monitor your oxygen saturation levels frequently, sanitise the equipment and stay in isolation.
“You need to be alert because the oxygen levels can suddenly plummet. Also, make sure you have a healthy protein diet, if permitted with no prior condition. Have the medicines prescribed along with immunity boosters like zinc and vitamin C. Also, make sure that you stay alert for signs of breathlessness, cough and fever,” says Dr Maurya.
When Juneja, who had a mild case and had no symptoms after the first three days, resumed exercise, he did so tentatively, starting with easy bodyweight workouts, which used to be his warm-up routine before catching covid-19. “For the first two-three days, I had a mental block and was afraid that something might go wrong. But nothing happened, and I got my confidence back. After that, I listened to my body and took about 8-10 weeks to get my strength back and resume my regular routine of four sessions in the gym and a game of football every week,” he recalls.
Rajda, who had to be hospitalised for a week as he ran a high fever for a few days, felt completely out of it when he returned home. The steroids and other medicines had left him weak and he couldn’t do anything but take short walks for up to two weeks. Whenever he tried even easy bodyweight exercises, he ended up winded. Gradually, more than three weeks after getting the all-clear from his doctor, Rajda scaled up to a walk-run routine. He paced himself, gradually working up from 1km to 4km, the distance he used to cover before he fell ill.
After the third week, he started doing bodyweight exercises and resumed workouts with light weights. “From the day I tested positive, it took me three months to return to where I was fitness-wise before falling ill,” says Rajda, who is now back to pumping iron four times a week, boxing twice a week and cardio and Pilates twice a week.
In severe cases, it can take anywhere from three-five months to return to your regular fitness routine, say doctors. “Since covid-19 affects the lungs, the lung capacity needs to be increased slowly. Begin with mild exercises like deep breathing and walking before moving on to heavy exercise. Do not rush into intense workouts as your body is still recovering and lung capacity is still increasing,” says Dr Maurya.
And for those who are active, there is good news. If you are an asymptomatic patient, there is no risk in working out, adds Dr Maurya. “In fact, working out helps boost immunity and allows for good sleep too. It will help you recover faster,” he says.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.