Why You Might Want to Cool It On High-Intensity Workouts During the COVID Crisis
Anyone who knows me knows I’m an exercise junkie. In addition to my sports medicine practice at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, I’m an avid athlete. I’ve run 35 marathons, done 14 Ironman triathlons, and started a national fitness community called Ironstrength.
In the new era of COVID-19 and social distancing, gyms have closed, local studios and trainers are moving exclusively online, and you may have been asked to scale back your outdoor activities. So, many people have asked me for advice on how best to exercise during the pandemic.
From my perspective as a doctor, athlete, and fitness instructor I have one thing to say: Tone it down!
My role as a sports medicine doctor has shifted tremendously in the past month. Instead of seeing patients with orthopedic issues in person, I’m practicing sports medicine via telemedicine—holding virtual visits to diagnose aches and pains, and providing solutions to fix these issues at home. I’m prescribing and teaching exercise classes just as I've done in previous years, but now, everything is virtual. These principles fall in line with my work over the past ten years to help people heal at home, including books I've written on the topic: The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies was designed to teach people how to fix their sports injuries at home, and Dr. Jordan Metzl’s Workout Prescription and The Exercise Cure gave prescriptions for home-based exercise for disease prevention.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, people of all fitness levels would join me for boot camp classes in Central Park, but these days, I'm shifting my advice—and it's not just about avoiding group workouts. Instead of doing as many burpees as you can muster in 30 seconds for the maximum fitness benefit (and effort!), I want you to keep your workouts in the moderate-intensity zone in order to really see the big picture when it comes to your health.
I get it: You like to sweat and move, and with more free time on your hands, you're probably tempted to crush every workout. Despite that urge, now is actually the time to back off the throttle and intensity.
At a time when preserving your health is the primary concern, I'm asking you to shift your perspective to think about exercise as a way to maximize your daily dose of one of the most powerful medications in the world: movement. (As a reminder, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends you should get a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise every day.)
Daily exercise is a wonder drug for the mind and body. In addition to the benefits for your mood and general health, there’s evidence that moderate-intensity exercise improves immune function. A stronger immune system means that when the body is faced with any type of infection, it fights back.
While moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to boost immune function, prolonged high-intensity exercise has been shown to lower immune function. For example, studies that have looked at immunity among marathon runners have found that the athletes’ have consistently shown a drop in interleukin levels—one of the main hormones that trigger an immune response—48-72 hours after a race. Translation: After a prolonged, intense workout, you’re less able to fight off infections. (More here: Is Your Really Intense Workout Routine Making You Sick?)
Now, all of this isn't to say that if you have to forfeit your Tabata entirely. Rather, I'd suggest limiting any high-intensity work to less than one-third of your total exercise time. For what it’s worth, research has shown that you may want to avoid doing too many consecutive days of HIIT training in general because it can put you at risk of overtraining.
In order to maximize your exercise benefits, now is the time to take your foot off the gas. I want you to keep moving, just in a smart way.
Here's how to keep your exercise intensity in check (and still maintain the health benefits):
- Exercise every day for a minimum of 30 minutes.
- Do something outside if you're able. Fresh air is great for both physical and mental benefits.
- Keep your exercise in the moderate zone—i.e. you should be able to talk.
- Prioritize time for recovery before your next workout.
- Most of all: Listen to your body! If it’s telling you to back off, please pay attention.
Jordan Metzl, M.D. is an award-winning sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and the best-selling author of five books on the intersection of medicine and fitness.