Writer Anna Myers is just one of the 80% of Covid patients who go on to develop long-term symptoms. She believes it’s thanks to mindful exercise that she’s now back up on her feet at last after catching the disease again during the Omicron wave,

The first time I got Covid, it was before most people knew Covid was a thing. An antibody test would later confirm my diagnosis, but in January 2020, those were few and far between, so I called it a mystery illness and focused all my efforts on just getting better. It would take a while, but thankfully I recovered. And that’s when I started to realise how profoundly my body had been impacted.

After spending almost a month in bed, in between ambulance rides and endless doctor visits, I was given the all-clear. Eager to return to normal life, I made big plans for new work projects, moving house and spending a few months in another country with friends… only for reality to quickly slap me in the face: for months, I couldn’t walk up a single flight of stairs without having to sit down midway through.

I was so tired all the time, and no matter how much I slept or how many vitamins I took, nothing seemed to change. I was too weak to walk more than 20 minutes at a time, and the first time I tried to get back into my pilates routine, I almost fainted. It looked like recovery would take a lot longer than I thought. 

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In time, I’d come to read about others in my same boat. Research is still ongoing, but one study analysed 47,910 Covid patients and found that 80% developed one or more long-term symptoms: common ones include fatigue, headache, attention disorder, hair loss and dyspnea. This can change over time, and according to a different study published in The Lancet: “The proportion of patients still experiencing at least one symptom decreased from 68% at six months to 49% at 12 months.”

In my case, I felt pretty much back to my old self after six months, but this December – almost two years on from the first infection and with a new variant spreading – I got ill again. This time, I was lucky to only experience mild symptoms, but the long journey back to health stayed the same.

While everyone’s recovery is different, and it’s important to stress that cases vary wildly between mild and more extreme ones, one thing helped me the most both the first and second time around: mindful, slow and short bouts of movement. 

What is mindful movement, and how can it help ease symptoms?

Even when I was too tired to do much besides sleep, eat and repeat, I tried to take the time to slowly and repeatedly stretch. A month or so into recovery, I started taking lunchtime walks. Sometimes I’d only make it around the block and back, but I tried to remind myself the goal was getting my body used to any type of movement, not getting anywhere far. One time, I managed three squats before feeling nauseated and lightheaded, so I called it a day. 

Dr Sohère Roked, consultant GP at Omniya Clinic, recommends graded exercise, a form of physical therapy where activity is gradually increased over time. “Maybe go for a walk for 10 or 15 minutes,” she advises, “then rest the next day, and see how your body responds. Then see if you can do the same again. And once you’re doing that comfortably, you can increase your tolerance.”

If you used to be quite sporty prior to getting sick, she recommends a jog or a bike ride. “If you had a yoga or pilates routine,” she says, “you can do 10 or 15 minutes of that instead of walking – it really depends on what your baseline was.”

Starting again from scratch

As to whether exercising while recovering from long Covid posed any risks, she says that “movement is always a good idea, but you don’t want to push your body too far, because your tolerance for what you’re able to do has gone down”.

It’s true; it can be frustrating to have little-to-no lung capacity and have to pace yourself. I found out the hard way with my squat experiment. But Dr Roked reminds me that “listening to what your body is telling you is not being lazy”, and that pushing yourself too far can lead to even more extreme fatigue, with the added danger of potentially affecting cortisol production.

That’s why combining exercise with mindfulness lends itself particularly well to recovery. Put simply, mindfulness is all about being aware of your breath and any sensations, emotions or thoughts associated with each part of your body, which can be extremely handy as you learn to move your body after the initial infection.

Where to start with mindful exercise

Helen O’Leary, physiotherapist and director of Complete Pilates, has an increasingly large number of clients who still feel the effects of long Covid. She shared with me four simple movements to assist recovery: sit-stands, step-ups, book openings, and bridging. 

All of these come with an important reminder: “​​Long Covid fitness programmes will be coming out thick and fast,” O’Leary warns. “Try not to get sucked in. Ask what qualifications they have first.” She also recommends steering clear from long Covid fitness groups, as everyone will have a different baseline.

While it can be hard, especially at first, to get your body used to movement again without overdoing it, finding the right balance is important. “The less we do, the more tired we get,” continues Dr Roked, “and that can affect things like your metabolism and cortisol production.” 

Supplements and nutrition for long Covid recovery

In addition to eating a healthy diet, cutting back on alcohol and making sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep, supplements could help you to recover faster. Dr Roked recommends vitamin C, zinc, antioxidants and omega 3 to help your body’s natural ability to recover.

I’ve been taking all of the above in addition to my beloved B12 for a while now, and while I can’t say my diet got any healthier (I’m Italian, we love pizza, I can’t help it), in the past month, I’ve been feeling my strength slowly come back to me. I’ve been here before, two years ago, and I know it will take a while, but mindful exercise helps me remember what an ordeal my body has been through and what an incredible thing it is to be able to feel myself slowly getting stronger.

The more I move my body and the more connected I feel to every muscle in it, even just through simple morning stretches, 15-minute walks and some occasional lunges while I’m cooking, the more I understand that it’s still doing its best to heal. 

It’s only with this knowledge and a deep sense of gratitude that I can gently lead it towards small improvements day after day – towards, perhaps, feeling stronger than I did before I ever got sick.  

For more fitness and nutrition tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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