Find your way back to the gym – safely

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If the pandemic put your workout routine on ice, you're in good company.

Gym attendance plummeted last year, and as people slowly return, their bodies may be telling them, "Hey! It's been a while!" Even the likes of action hero Will Smith acknowledged, "I'm in the worst shape of my life" before posting a video poking fun at how much he had forgotten about working out.

If you, like Smith, are plotting a fitness comeback, experts applaud you. But, they say, you need to be careful. Here's their advice on how to do that.

It starts with a vaccine.

The first step in a safe return to the gym is to remember what drove people away.

"Number one, get vaccinated," said Dr. Brandee Waite, director of sports medicine at UC Davis Health in Sacramento, California. That's especially important as coronavirus variants spread.

"If you're indoors, and exercising and breathing hard, and are not vaccinated, by all means please wear a mask to protect yourself and the community that you wanted to rejoin," she said.

Even fully vaccinated people should wear masks in public indoor settings in parts of the country with "substantial" or "high" transmission rates, according to updated guidance issued Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Masking also is a good choice for vaccinated people at increased risk for severe COVID-19 or those with high-risk or unvaccinated family members.

The CDC offers guidelines for gyms. Waite suggested checking to make sure you know what your gym is doing and are comfortable with it – so an unwelcome surprise doesn't become an excuse for not returning.

Is it safe to work out after having COVID-19?

For most people, yes, Waite said. It depends on lingering symptoms. Anyone who had COVID-19 should get clearance from their physician before returning to exercise. Some people also might want guidance from a physical therapist or a doctor who specializes in rehabilitation.

A team of British researchers, writing in the journal BMJ in January, recommended waiting at least a week after symptoms clear and minimizing exertion for the first two weeks.

But overall, Waite said, "We want to get people back exercising, because we need their cardiovascular health to get better to improve their overall health."