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Regaining Physical Fitness After COVID-19

Three adults over 50 share what it took to regain strength and mobility after surviving the coronavirus

a physical therapist helps a woman doing arm stretches

Marko Geber / Getty Images

En español | After being sick with COVID-19, many people are finding the trajectory back to good health to be full of twists and turns. Complications and lingering symptoms such as fatigue and brain fog make recovery unpredictable. Many also find that restoring their physical strength and fitness can be particularly challenging, regardless of whether they had a mild or severe case of the coronavirus.

"You might not bounce right back,” says Mitchell Elkind, M.D., a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University in New York and past president of the American Heart Association. The reason? “The inflammation and immune dysregulation that comes from COVID may have consequences for how people recover. It might depend on their age, what their other medical problems are and how much injury was done to their lungs, heart, brain or other organs when they were acutely ill."

Here is what it took for three adults 50-plus to rebuild strength, mobility and balance, as well as what methods helped them on the bumpy road back from COVID-19.

Getting stronger than ever after learning to use a walker

After recovering from a mild case of COVID-19 in November 2020, Greg Whitehouse, a manufacturing engineer in Wallingford, Connecticut, developed serious complications in the form of Guillain-Barré syndrome. With this neurological disorder, the body's immune system mistakenly attacks part of the peripheral nervous system, triggering symptoms that can range from weakness to paralysis. In Whitehouse's case, what started with numbness in his feet and lower legs progressed over four days to head-to-toe paralysis. He could see, breathe and talk, but he couldn't move his body.

After eight days in the hospital, where he received high-dose immunoglobulin therapy, Whitehouse spent 54 days at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare. There he gradually relearned to walk with a walker and perform everyday activities like dressing himself, brushing his teeth and tying his shoes, thanks to three or four physical therapy and occupational therapy sessions a day. “I was overwhelmed by my negative condition, and sometimes it seemed like [regaining my strength] was unachievable because I was in such a bad way,” says Whitehouse, 61, who is married with three grown children. “I tried not to think about it and just do what the therapists told me to do, because they had a plan. The mental challenge was a big part of it for me — the people I worked with helped me focus on what I could do, not what I couldn't do, and I slowly built up from there."

As he gradually built up his strength, Whitehouse began to focus on regaining his mobility. “It took every bit of energy I had physically and mentally to get through the workouts,” he says. “Every day I would consciously focus on the littlest improvement and share it with my wife.”

He left Gaylord in late January using a walker. A month later, he transitioned to a cane, and after another month he began walking on his own. He has gradually stepped up his exercise routine, adding walking and light jogging for 30 to 45 minutes several times a week, plus doing weight workouts at home.

"I'm actually stronger than I used to be,” Whitehouse says. He also lost 25 pounds and no longer takes the hypertension medications he'd been on since his 20s. At the end of June, Whitehouse participated in the Gaylord Gauntlet, a 3.3-mile race with 22 obstacles, running a large portion of it. “If I hadn't been sick and recovered, I would have said, ‘I'm too old for that,’ “ he notes. “But after what I've been through, I wanted to tackle the challenge and prove myself.”


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Turning to a fellow physical therapist for help

Before she got sick with COVID-19, Kathy Hidalgo was very physically active. She was not only constantly on the move in her work as a physical therapist but also went jogging and lifted weights at the gym three to five times a week. She came down with COVID-19 on Mother's Day in 2020. At first, Hidalgo tried to tough it out at home, but with a fever of 103, she felt so weak that she had to crawl to the bathroom. From there, bilateral pneumonia put her in the intensive care unit of the hospital for four days.

After 12 days in the hospital, she returned home and was shocked at how difficult it was to perform basic activities. “I could only walk up four stairs,” says Hidalgo, now 54, who lives in Hockessin, Delaware. “Then I'd have to rest. And I was so weak that I couldn't carry a coffee mug across the kitchen floor. The muscle wasting was profound, and I lost 15 pounds without trying.”

For a while she tried to build up her strength on her own, by walking and lifting weights at home. “There was a point where I hit a wall and I wasn't getting anywhere on my own,” she recalls. Fear, she says, was part of the problem — she worried about expending all of her energy doing physical activity and not having any left to get through the rest of her day.

Hidalgo, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, realized she needed help, so she began working with a physical therapist at ChristianaCare in September 2020. Together they developed a circuit training plan, using her body weight or handheld weights, which catered to specific weaknesses (such as those in her calves and quads) and that alternated between upper-body and lower-body work. She also did aerobic work on the treadmill. Being able to monitor her vital signs while she exercised gave her peace of mind that she wouldn't overdo it.

After six weeks of sessions, Hidalgo's physical therapist told her that she was ready to fly solo, using the program they developed. “It's over a year ago that I got diagnosed, and I'm still working on it,” says Hidalgo, who does a lot of walking and goes to the gym three times a week. While she has her sights set on running a 5k, she's still trying to regain her previous energy and improve her stamina. “I'm not where I want to be yet,” she says, “but I'm making improvements, month by month.”

man using a treadmill, wearing a face mask

Courtesy Reed Dunn

Jack Dunn

Building mind and body strength with yoga, walking and weights

Jack Dunn, 87, of Pittson, Pennsylvania, contracted COVID-19 in early December 2020. It came on quickly: In the span of three days, he went from feeling normal to terrible — with shortness of breath, fatigue and body aches. Because he has had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for 20 years, Dunn was particularly concerned about his breathing. Also, the neuropathy in his left leg and foot worsened with the virus, and he lost 18 pounds from his already slim figure. Dunn spent four days at Geisinger Hospital, then did physical rehabilitation at home a couple of times per week, for several weeks, while continuing to recover. He would walk 10 minutes every day and follow that with a series of balance exercises.

"It was a slow process, and I'm still not completely back to where I want to be,” says Dunn, who has a grown son and lives with his partner, Naomi, in a senior community. These days, he walks on the treadmill for 20 to 30 minutes, taking breaks as needed, three times a week, with Geisinger's 65 Forward program, which is geared toward older people. He also uses handheld weights, to build up arm strength, and participates in chair-yoga classes two mornings a week, to improve his mental outlook.

"I couldn't visualize myself on the floor doing yoga, so I decided to try chair yoga,” says Dunn, who worked in planning and community development for the government before retiring. “It's been helpful for my mental outlook, my flexibility, and I'm feeling physically stronger. In the last six weeks, I've been feeling pretty good.”