Sarah Thwaites fell ill in March 2020, just days before the first English lockdown began. Mysterious symptoms, extreme fatigue and the end of her daily routine became the norm. A short while later it became clear that Sarah was suffering from Covid-19.
As Sarah now attempts to rebuild her life and her strength, she has agreed to write a monthly blog for us, chronicling her recovery and experiences of long Covid.
In my last post I wrote about my physical decline and how gently I had to start the rebuilding process. This time I’m going to try to talk about where exercise fitted into that for me.
This is a tricky subject and I need to point out that I’m not a doctor, I don’t have any magic insights and I’m definitely not saying that what has worked for me will work for other people with long covid. We all seem to be affected in different ways and what supports our recovery seems to be equally personal.
Many people with long covid have bad experiences with exercise. Like me, they found that doing too much of the wrong activity for their body intensified symptoms and seemed to hasten a decline.
Some of the thinking about long covid is that for some people the body doesn’t ‘reset’ once the acute viral stage has passed and that the body is still in fight mode with the immune system and inflammatory reaction in high alert. That makes sense to me. It felt a bit like my body was a car with a broken clutch, revving furiously but unable to get out of first gear. In that state almost any activity causes burnout and deterioration. Part of healing seemed to be calming that reaction, getting my body out of that state of high alert and retraining myself to deal with life. That took work. It’s an ongoing process.
As that retraining started to work, my body was better placed to begin to deal with a gentle reintroduction of activity. This had to be very, very gentle. At that point I’d had to move in with family in Cumbria because I couldn’t look after myself. I love being outdoors but for weeks the only way I could manage that was in late afternoon (my best time of the day) taking a few steps from the back door to a sunlounger my dad set out for me and lying there swaddled in blankets in the autumn chill. It was a change of scenery from looking at the ceiling in bed and for a body as weak as mine was, those few steps were the equivalent of exercise. A couple of times when my parents went for a walk in a local park they dropped me off by the riverside where I lay on the grass until they returned, enjoying the view but not able to walk myself or even sit up for more than a few minutes.
After a couple of weeks, I tried to walk a little further, adding on a couple of extra steps when I could. There is a wood at the end of my parents’ short street and it took me about a month of gradually increasing my movement to be able to get as far as the entrance to the wood. There I had to lie down for a rest to allow my heart rate to settle before I could return home. When I got to the house I had to lie down on the doorstep to rest before I could take my boots off. It is hard to describe how I felt. The word fatigue really doesn’t capture it; it was more like a sense of physical collapse – racing heart, legs like lead, head lightheaded and faint. I couldn’t at that point get inside the wood but making it to the entrance was encouraging and gave me something to build on. A week later I managed to make it to a bench just inside the wood. Each time I did a little more slowly and patiently gave my body rest days in between to recover my strength.
I walked very slowly to start with, that was all I could manage. I got used to being overtaken by people decades older than me and using zimmer frames. I also needed a lot of lying down breaks. People don’t usually lie down in public, at least not in winter, and I got used to telling concerned passers by that I wasn’t dead before they called 999. I now walk everyday in the local park whatever the weather. I now move at a faster pace and rarely need a lie down midway (only before and after). Now that I’m back in work it is often dark by the time I’ve worked and had a lie down rest but I still go out. My body seems to need that walk as part of its rehabilitation so I need to make sure it happens. Sometime it feels like a slog – it’s harder to be motivated after dark when I can’t see and enjoy the park around me. To provide some extra motivation I signed myself up for a virtual journey around Iceland. I’ve been surprised at how the distance has mounted up. With my daily walks, rowing and occasional bike outings I’ve managed 740km since the start of January.