Tested positive for Covid-19? Don’t rush back to work or exercise

Pushing yourself too hard and too early can set your recovery back.

Wait until you’re symptom-free for seven days to exercise. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

With Covid-19 isolation rules relaxed, some people feel pressured to rush back to work, school or other activities after testing positive.

If your symptoms are mild, you might be tempted to just keep remotely working through your infection, and quickly return to your usual exercise programme so you don’t lose your fitness.

But while we might be used to bouncing back quickly after other viruses, we need to be more cautious with Covid-19. Aside from the risk of transmission, over-exertion can exacerbate and prolong your symptoms.

Clinical guidelines recommend getting adequate rest when you’re diagnosed with Covid-19. Pushing yourself too hard and too early during your recovery from your initial infection may set your progress back.

While more than four in five people with Covid-19 have mild illness and recover within a month, for others, it can take up to a few months or even longer.

When people have symptoms such as fatigue or shortness of breath for three months or more, this is called long Covid. Up to 89 per cent of people with long Covid experience post-exertional malaise, where overdoing physical or mental activity exacerbates symptoms such as fatigue and causes new symptoms such as pain and anxiety.

Take your time

So you’ve tested positive?  How can you tell whether you’re well enough to get back to your usual routine?

First, take your time. If you’re feeling sick, use your paid leave entitlements, even if it’s for a day or two to relax and unwind. While it may be tempting to return to work quickly, avoid attending the workplace for at least seven days if you work in a high-risk setting such as health, disability and aged care. 

If you’re feeling fatigued but want to get back to work after testing negative, you might be able to start with half-days, or working for a few hours, then ramping up to your usual workload.

Second, pace, plan and prioritise. Pacing, planning and prioritising are important while you’re still experiencing symptoms: pace yourself by spreading out the activities into smaller and more manageable tasks with rest in between. Plan your activities in advance. Prioritise what you need to do over what you would like to do.

Third, wait until you’re symptom-free for seven days to exercise. You might feel ready to start exercising after your symptoms resolve but to avoid over-exertion, it’s important to wait until you have been free of any Covid-19 symptoms for at least seven days.

Start with light-intensity exercises – where you can easily breathe, maintain a conversation and feel you could sustain the activity for hours – for 10 to 15 minutes to begin with. Only exercise again if you feel recovered from the previous day’s exercises, without new onset or worsening of symptoms such as fatigue and pain.

Fourth, know when to see your health provider. If you’re managing Covid-19 at home, check your symptoms to see if you need medical advice for your condition.

While there are currently no medications to treat symptoms such as fatigue, exercise-based health professionals such as physiotherapists can set you up with an exercise programme and progress it accordingly to reduce fatigue and assist with breathlessness.

Mahatma Gandhi was right when he said “good health is true wealth”, so be kind to yourself when recovering from Covid-19.

  • Clarice Tang is a senior lecturer in physiotherapy at Western Sydney University. This article first appeared in The Conversation.

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