by Jordan D. Metzl, MD, FAAP
Long-time Symposia Medicus faculty member, Dr. Jordan Metzl, is a nationally-renowned physician, author, and fitness instructor who specializes in sports medicine and is an incredibly active member of the athletic world himself. Today, Dr. Metzl gives his recommendations for patients who are returning to exercise after recovering from COVID-19.
For the past 20 years, when patients asked me about exercising while recovering from a viral illness like the flu, I gave them the same advice: Listen to your body. If exercise usually makes you feel better, go for it.
COVID-19 has changed my advice.
Early in the pandemic, as the initial wave of patients with COVID-19 began to recover and clinically improve, my colleagues and I noticed that some of our patients were struggling to return to their previous activity levels. Some cited extreme fatigue and breathing difficulties, while others felt as if they just couldn’t get back to their normal fitness output. We also began to hear of a higher-than-normal incidence of cardiac arrhythmias from myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle that can weaken the heart and, in rare cases, cause sudden cardiac arrest. Other complications like blood clots were also cropping up.
What was most surprising is that we saw these problems in previously healthy and fit patients who had experienced only mild illness and never required hospitalization for COVID-19.
In my sports medicine practice, a cyclist in her 40s with recent COVID-19 symptoms had leg pain that was abnormal enough to warrant an ultrasound, which showed near complete cessation of blood flow because of arterial and venous blood clots in both legs. Thankfully, our team caught these early enough that they didn’t spread to her lungs, which ultimately could have killed her. Recently, a college student in Indiana with COVID-19 died from a blood clot that traveled to her lungs. As the pandemic has evolved, we’ve learned of a much higher risk of blood clots from people who contract the virus.
In those early months of the pandemic, my colleagues and I learned of a New York City mental health worker in her early 30s, a dedicated athlete with no underlying health problems, who developed symptoms of COVID-19. Her low-grade fever and congestion went away, but she continued to feel “sluggish.” Like she had done many other times after getting over an illness, she went for a run to feel better. She died on the run of cardiac arrest; it appears she had undiagnosed myocarditis caused by COVID-19.
We now know the heart is a particular cause for concern after coronavirus infection. A study in JAMA Cardiology looked at 100 men and women in Germany, average age 49, who had recovered from COVID-19, and found signs of myocarditis in 78 percent. Most had been healthy with no pre-existing medical conditions before becoming infected. A smaller study of college athletes who had recovered from COVID-19 found that 15 percent had signs of heart inflammation. Experts continue to assess the data regarding heart risks to help clinicians better determine when athletes can return to play.
As the pandemic continues, we’ve heard countless stories of elite athletes in top physical condition struggling to regain their form after COVID-19. More than a dozen women on the U.S. Olympic rowing team who contracted the virus in March described persistent fatigue for weeks after the initial illness. Recreational athletes, including runners and triathletes, have complained of prolonged respiratory symptoms during exercise. Pulmonary issues from COVID-19, including pneumonia, have caused breathing difficulty during exercise for weeks or months following infection.
To help patients safely return to activity after mild to moderate COVID-19 infection, my colleagues at Hospital for Special Surgery and I published an evidence-based set of guidelines based on a review of the existing medical literature and our ever-evolving understanding of the disease. Our “return to activity” guidelines urge far more caution than in the past, based on the unpredictable nature of how the virus affects each person.
Anyone who had severe illness or was hospitalized with COVID-19 needs to consult a physician about whether it’s safe to exercise. But even people who experienced mild illness or no symptoms need to take precautions before exercising again. Among our new recommendations:
Don’t exercise if you’re still sick. Do not exercise if you have active symptoms, including a fever, cough, chest pain, shortness of breath at rest, or palpitations.
Slowly return to exercise. Even if you had only mild symptoms, with no chest pain or shortness of breath, you should still wait until you have at least seven days with no symptoms before returning to exercise. Start at just 50 percent of normal intensity. A gradual, stepwise, and slow return to full activity is recommended.
Stop exercise if symptoms return. If you develop symptoms after exercising, including chest pain, fever, palpitations, or shortness of breath, see a doctor.
Some patients should see a cardiologist before exercising. If you experienced chest pain, shortness of breath, or fatigue during your illness, you should see a cardiologist before restarting sports activity. Depending on how you feel, your doctor may conduct a test for myocardial inflammation.
Get tested. If you have cold or flu symptoms, get tested for COVID-19 before you return to exercise. If you think you might have had COVID-19, a test might help you and your doctor make decisions about safely returning to exercise.
And remember, as doctors, we can run tests, but you know your own body better than anyone else. You know how you normally feel when you walk up the stairs, when you run, when you bike. If you’ve had COVID-19, are those things harder for you? Are you noticing a change in your body? If the answer is “yes,” it’s important to speak with your doctor.
Even if you’ve never been diagnosed with COVID-19, be mindful of how you are feeling. Many people with COVID-19 don’t know they have it, or have general symptoms like gastrointestinal upset, fatigue, or muscle aches. So if you’ve been feeling “off” during exercise, listen to your body, ease up, and check with your doctor.
COVID-19 is an aggressive virus that spreads easily and carries significant morbidity and mortality. Cardiac risk in particular is greater with COVID-19 than with other viral diseases, so it makes sense to return to activity with caution.
Dr. Metzl is a Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Cornell Medical School and Attending Physician in the Sports Medicine Division at the Hospital for Special Surgery. He lives in New York City, New York.