Slow recovery from an illness or surgery? You can speed up the process!

Are you recovering from surgery or COVID-19 and don’t quite have the stamina to return to your normal activities?

Did you know that a normal muscle in a non-ill middle-age adult will lose up to 15% of its strength each week?

Older man stumbling getting off of white couch

The leg and trunk muscles are the first areas weakened during bed rest, and these are the muscles that are important for walking.  Is it a wonder that falls occur more frequently after an illness.

Age compounds this problem. Consider that you have been ill and have spent a week in bed, as n older adult your loss of strength can be almost three times faster than a middle aged adult.  Compound that with other issues that may occur due to your specific illness and that loss increases even more.

It should not be surprising that the recovery time in an older adult is MUCH longer than someone younger.

How do you recover from the loss of strength and stamina?

Often, we see people just adapting to the new lower level of fitness. The bar is now lowered, but it doesn’t have to stay that  way.  Getting back to movement and exercise can improve the recover period, help you regain your strength and hopefully reduce the feared fall.

I like to think of it as one’s college GPA.  The C grade  you received seemed to pull your grade point average down much more than the A grade did to raise it. This is like an illness, that lying in bed takes us down much quicker than we can even imagine.

What happens with COVID-19

COVID-19 has its own nuances and the understanding of the long term effects and recovery is not well understood.  There are concerns about cardiac injury and myocarditis post Covid-19. Additionally, people are experiencing more fatigue and other yet to be determined symptoms.  That is concern even if you did not get seriously ill.

Before returning to any exercise program, you should always seek guidance

and clearance from your healthcare provider.

With any  illness recovery, its important to is focus on the four pillars of fitness  to help you or a loved one return to baseline level.  These pillars are strength, balance, flexibility and endurance.  With any long term illness where we are sedentary, muscles weaken, flexibility worsen, balance is an issue and endurance to do most activities has declined.

Remember, it’s important to allow for periods of rest between activity levels. Breathing exercise, or just taking deep breaths during the day are great and allow for optimal oxygenation and expansion of the lungs. When we are ill or in pain, our breathing can become shallow and we really need that full lung expansion.

Exercises you can do right now

Ten days of bed rest can result in a reduction in stair-climbing power. To be able to get up the stairs or out of a chair, resistance exercise can be an effective means of combating the loss of muscle mass and function.

Resistance exercise should be accompanied by an adequate protein- and energy-rich diet. See my blog on Protein.


A early sequence  (immediately after illness) you can do sitting in a chair or on the side of your bed.

1. Two Deep breaths – inhalation (2)- hold (4)- exhale (4).

2. March legs (while sitting in a chair) for 30 seconds

3. Repeat breathing (see #1)

4. Reach your arms out to your side (really reach) and then finger tips to the ceiling (keep taking deep breaths as your arms move) for 30 seconds

5. Return to breathing (see #1)


As you begin to feel stronger, you can increase the  level of exercises depending on how long before you fatigue (stop if it’s too much) and add a little more each day.

  • Exercise 1 – Seated
    • Leg lifts – alternate each leg like you are marching (10x)
    • Arm raises (legs down) –  Inhale when your arms go to the ceiling and exhale when your arms go back to your waist (10x)
    • Do this for 2 minutes 2x day
  • Exercise 2 – Seated
    • Leg lifts – alternate each leg like marching (20x)
    • Arm raises AND leg lifts (20x)
    • Leg lifts only (20x)
    • Arm raises – Inhale as arms reach to ceiling, exhale when they go down (20x)
  • Exercise 3 – Seated ARMS
    • Arm raises with deep breathing
    • Fists clench as they reach to the ceiling – INHALE to the count of 2
    • Stretch fingers wide, EXHALE to the count of 4 and lower arms.
    • Do this 10 times 2x day
  • Exercise 4 – Seated FEET (alternate feet to provide optimal concentration)
    • Point toes toward floor 5 x per foot
    • Point toes toward ceiling 5x per foot
    • Rotate ankles in a circle 5x per foot
    • Woman working out with loop resistance bands

      Woman with resistance band

  • Exercise 5 – Seated RESISTANCE (LEGS)
    • Place circular (lightest and you can increase resistance as you get stronger) loop around thighs, just above knees (stay seated) – take knees out to side, INHALE for the count of 5 as knees go outward,
    • EXHALE for the count of 5 as knees return to center.
    • Repeat for 2 minutes total.
    • Loop resistance bands cost about $10 on amazon, here is a link
  • Exercise 6 – Seated RESISTANCE (ARMS)
    • Hold loop resistance band on either side, knuckles facing inward
    • Pull loop resistance band apart, INHALE
    • Return loop resistance band to center (knuckles facing), EXHALE
    • Repeat 10x
  • Exercise 7 – Seated Hand Strength using tennis ball or squeezy ball (if you don’t have a ball you can use a small towel)
    • Hold ball in hand and squeeze
    • SLOWLY Inhale and exhale (while squeezing ball) for the count of ten.
    • Repeat with opposite hand
  • Exercise 8 – Seated Foot Flexibility (1 foot and then alternate)
    • Place Ball on floor and place the arch of your foot on the ball
    • Curl toes around the ball
    • Rotate the ball forward and back, then side to side and last in a circle
    • Do this for 1 minute each foot 

Please follow me on Instagram @sandifeaster to see more of these types of exercises


Articles on inactivity-induced loss of muscle mass affecting the lower body musculature during the initial days/weeks of inactivity

Sandi Feaster