There are no official rules for exiting a global pandemic, it turns out, but so far the world seems to have agreed that it’s probably best to take it slow. This feels antithetical to the way we might have assumed we’d burst out, vaccine in arm, but an ease back into old and new norms is practical given that most of us have changed our routines drastically in the last year.
It's perfectly understandable if you’ve been ignoring regular exercise while your body focuses on staying healthy during an unprecedented global pandemic, but that means the Take It Slow rule applies extra. So what's the best way to gradually go from couch to calisthenics again? According to Nwando Emejulu, a Pilates instructor in New York City and cofounder of the nonprofit Move With Purpose, a successful reintroduction to exercise is as much about mindful movement as it is about recovery. Ahead, we partnered with Clorox — whose Fabric Sanitizer keeps your workout clothes fresh by eliminating 99.9% of odor-causing bacteria — to get Emejulu's top tips on how to plot your fitness comeback.
Working out every other day, with a dedicated rest day, is recommended for getting started again. An intense daily workout, even if you're in peak condition, puts you at high risk for injury. In a post-pandemic world, it also just sounds like an overbooked week — your return to society includes way, way more than toning and cardio, and making time for some joy alongside your normal routine is key. Emejulu recommends picking a workout you enjoy and starting with two or three days a week. Block out the other half of the week for more low-key forms of activity, such as easy walks and dance parties.
Use your warm-up to check in with your body
“I love to start my workouts with a cat and cow stretch,” Emejulu says. “It’s a great way to get into your breath and stretch your back.” Start your routine by paying attention to your lower back and hips, especially if you work from home — these body parts might be a little tighter/achier than you remember. Go in with ease, patience, and awareness, because in the end, working out should feel good.
After you’ve gotten some feedback from your body — hello, hip flexors — it’s time to use that dialogue to set some goals. Emejulu recommends simple, honest intentions that can help you feel good throughout the workout.
"Today, you might want something very different than tomorrow," she says. “So you might say something like, 'I want to feel strong in my upper body.' But there’s nothing wrong with saying, 'I want a great butt!' It can also be as simple as, 'Today I want to move my body.'"
Ask what your body needs now
No two days are the same, and you’re not always going to want, or need, 30 minutes of one-legged burpees and skater lunges — sometimes just stretching will be enough. Emejulu says that on days when you’re not feeling something higher-impact, 10 minutes of dedicated moves, such as planks, bird dogs, and ab roll-downs, can be a great way to reenergize.
“I always ask myself to think about what I enjoy about working out,” she says. “What do I want to feel, how do I want to feel at the end of my session. Everyone is very different.”
Be honest about how the last year’s stress has changed you
Every single person on Earth went through it last year, so it's natural that that stress has manifested itself in parts of your body. The key is to be kind to yourself, and never work through pain. Instead, work with your body.
“If you’re active and live in the city, you’re going to be tight,” Emejulu says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s pain, not stiffness, that you want to avoid. The body is so resilient, especially for everything we’ve put it through. It’s a matter of acknowledging it, accepting it, and working with it.”
Make time for rest & recovery
The recovery, it turns out, is just as important as the workout itself. A focused, easy wind-down will help you come back stronger the next time. Stretching it out after every workout is crucial, but Emejulu also recommends taking a full day each week for minimal phone use, staying off social media, and ditching the workout session for a long walk or meditation instead.
“People are surprised when you rest in a workout,” Emejulu says, but recovery poses, like child’s pose or happy baby, hold as much value as the more active moves. She has a mantra to remind herself that going easy on yourself is vital: “Your body deserves some love, and your body deserves some rest."