Health & Fitness

What you need to know about working out after the COVID vaccine

Don't worry, it's totally safe ... and even recommended.

medical professional administering vaccine Credit: Getty Images

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It’s been more than a year since we began staying at home as a precaution against COVID-19. And after spending so much time enjoying our newfound hobbies like baking, tie-dyeing, and crafting, the light at the end of the tunnel back to our regular, social, outside-the-house lives is a little brighter. By April 19, all American adults should be eligible to receive a COVID vaccine.

Perhaps you’ve already been successful in the scramble to get a vaccination appointment. This can bring on a lot of emotions, from overwhelming relief to uncertainty about how the vaccine will affect your body and routine. If that daily routine includes working out, you may be concerned by the potential reactions your body may have to the COVID shots such as soreness, fever, flu-like symptoms, or even rashes that may disrupt your runs, bike rides, or vinyasa sessions. Good news: You can basically do anything you’d usually do before and after getting the COVID vaccine—including exercise—as long as you’re feeling up to it. Here’s what else you need to know.

How do vaccines in general affect the body?

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Vaccines may make you feel ill, even though you aren't actually sick.

Vaccines are typically weakened or inactive versions of a disease that trigger an immune response in the body. They do not make you sick. However, when they enter the body, they can cause minor cold symptoms, like a fever or runny nose, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So if you’ve ever felt a little fluish after getting a flu shot, that’s why. This happens because your body is building immunity and the immune response can trigger these symptoms even though you aren’t actually sick. Though you may feel ill, it's generally short-lived and the reaction is a sign the vaccine is working and will either lessen the severity of the illness, or even prevent you from contracting it.

How will your body react to the COVID-19 vaccine?

In the United States, three COVID vaccines have been authorized by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use: Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson.

Unlike typical vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna don't introduce any variant of the COVID-19 virus into your body. Instead, they use mRNA technology to teach your body to build an immune response as if it were exposed to the COVID-19 virus, without actual exposure to the virus. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require getting two shots three or four weeks apart.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine works similarly to traditional vaccines. It's administered in one dose and uses a “viral vector” (a modified version of a related benign virus) to create the COVID-19 immune response, instead of mRNA. (Its administration is currently halted to allow the CDC and FDA to investigate a very rare potential side effect.)

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Anecdotally, people report many different symptoms from the various COVID-19 vaccines (including, for some, no reaction at all). But according to Mayo Clinic, some expected effects of getting the vaccine include pain or swelling at the injection site, fever, fatigue, headache, and muscle aches. Some people also feel rundown, nonspecifically ill, and experience chills or nausea. Most reactions arise within the first three days after getting vaccinated and only last a day or two. If you get a two-dose Pfizer or Moderna shot, you may also experience more intense effects after one shot or the other.

"To prepare, people should stay well hydrated throughout the day of their vaccine appointment,” says Shaili Gandhi, PharmD and Vice President of formulary operations at SingleCare, a prescription savings service. If you feel pain or discomfort after the shot, the CDC recommends placing a cool, clean washcloth over the injection area. You may also take over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, or antihistamines, though you should run it by your doctor to make sure. The CDC does not recommend taking pain medication before getting the vaccine as an attempt to lessen reactions.

When is it OK to resume exercise?

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No matter what your physical activity of choice is, it's safe to do it after getting the vaccine.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, many doctors suggest making an effort to move your upper body after receiving any vaccine, as it can help reduce soreness in the injection site. The same is true for the COVID vaccine. “People may experience arm soreness and body aches ... some light stretching and exercising the arm may help reduce the pain,” Gandhi says. It's also perfectly safe to resume whatever you like to do for regular exercise immediately after getting vaccinated and it won’t affect the vaccine’s effectiveness, she adds.

What are some signs you shouldn't work out?

If you feel especially tired, sick, or sore, there’s nothing wrong with skipping a workout to allow your body time to recover. While light exercise can help with arm-muscle aches, an intense workout may make you feel worse, Gandhi says, as serious exercise can fatigue the body even further. Just like you have to listen to your body to determine whether to work out when you're actually sick, you should do the same after your vaccine.

When will it be OK to return to a gym?

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If you're returning to the gym, you should still be wearing a mask.

The risk of transmission can be higher in a gym than in everyday life. Working out in confined spaces and heavy breathing, as well as many hands touching the same equipment, contribute to the concern. A pre-vaccine study by the CDC found that a gym in Chicago that held an indoor workout class where attendees were allowed to remove their masks led to a breakout of infections after 68% of attendees (55 of the 81) contracted COVID-19.

The CDC recommends all gym-goers wear a mask, even if they are distanced 6 feet apart, because of the increased risk of transmission while exercising. Though the vaccine has been proven to protect against symptomatic infection, experts still don't know whether vaccinated people can unknowingly spread the virus, or if the vaccine is as effective against new COVID-19 variants. The bottom line: People who have been vaccinated could still contract the virus and pass it on to people who are not vaccinated, which is why you still should mask up in public, and especially at the gym, even if your last shot was two or more weeks ago.

Gandhi says masks are still the “best practice for safety,” even if they are not required. “In addition, it's recommended to continue to take other standard precautions, such as social distancing and washing your hands,” she says.

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