I Hadn't Been To The Gym In Over 4 Years. Here's What Happened When I Returned
Four years ago, I was suffering from lyme disease and chronic fatigue. Suddenly, simple tasks like showering left me exhausted. And before I knew it, exercise didn't even make it to my to-do list. As I started to recover, I craved the sweaty, soul-satisfying benefits of regular exercise again—but I knew I had to be taken slowly, or I would crash. And yes, I crashed. I crashed a lot. I soon found that there were workouts I could do throughout my illness, but I never got weights or the gym involved. My workouts were of the gentler variety. They included leg exercises in bed, short walks, and the occasional lunge and calf raise. But come April 2017, I was ready to make the plunge and head back to the gym.
My first day back was April 3, 2017. I hadn't worked out in a gym for over four years. I did absolutely no cardio, used very light weights, and worked all major muscle groups. Trying to do at least eight to 12 reps—which I was once able to do easily—went straight out the window.
For some exercises, just two to three reps had to do. It was a little embarrassing, but I let it go. No one knew me in the gym, right? I went straight to sleep afterward. Two days later, every muscle in my body hurt, and I had to spend even more time in bed. Muscle soreness was inevitable, but I welcomed it with open arms. I didn't have the energy to exercise again for six days, equating to five days of rest.
A few days later, I tried again. I repeated what I had done six days earlier, but this time I added 15 minutes of cardio. After that I did a full-body workout, using very light weights, for about 45 minutes. Again, it wan't my best workout. But I was able to reach at least eight to 12 reps with some exercises. So this, too, was progress.
Two days later, I had the energy to try again! I did 20 minutes of cardio and 45 minutes of weights. That afternoon, I was still tired, but I didn't crash into bed. I'm now aiming for two days per week.
It has taken me over four years to find my way back to the gym, and I am exceedingly grateful for the progress I have made. If you, too, are returning to the gym after a long hiatus, here's what I advise:
1. Try doing body-weight exercises at home first.
It took me four years and three months to get there. Yes, you read that right. In terms of walking, it took me exactly four years to become capable of simply walking my neighborhood, which is chock-full of hills. If you need some inspiration, my home exercise program can be found here.
2. Don't run, please.
Before getting sick, I ran 5 miles several days per week. As of right now, I wouldn't even think of attempting this. Why? Because to run that much, you have to be in pretty good shape. Right now, I'm not in the best shape—and this is because running is high impact, and if you don't have the muscular strength (particularly at the hip) and great balance (can you stand on one foot without wobbling?), it can lead to joint damage. No thank you. I'm not there yet!
3. For cardio exercise, choose low impact (and go slowly).
Personally, I have been using the stair climber since returning to the gym, albeit slowly. My balance is in need of work—I need to strengthen my hips—so this is speeding up the process. If you haven't been walking much, go for the elliptical.
4. Use weights only if you know what you're doing.
If you don't know what you're doing, you will hurt yourself. Since returning to the gym, I am amazed by how many people I see who apparently have no idea how to use weights properly. It's rather scary. If you want tips for navigating the weight room when you're brand-new, check them out here.
5. Accept that getting in shape takes time, so don't overdo it.
Only you know what you are truly capable of, so listen to your body. What equates to "overdoing it" differs from person to person. So don't get intimidated by those people at the gym who seem capable of doing anything. Remember, they have been at it a long time. Good luck!
Rachel Straub, M.S., is an exercise physiologist, nutritionist, biomechanist, certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), and co-author of Weight Training Without Injury: Over 350 Step-by-Step Pictures Including What Not to Do!, which has won 17 book awards and has been endorsed by major names in sports medicine, physical therapy, and professional bodybuilding. She received her B.A. in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University, master's degrees in nutritional sciences and exercise physiology from San Diego State University, and a master's in bio-kinesiology from UCLA.