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  • Writer's pictureBarry Cooper

Recovering from Post Viral Fatigue

Catch a virus such as flu, and you would expect to be lacking in energy for a few days until your body recovers. But in some cases this tiredness persists long after the virus has cleared up. This is a fairly common occurrence, known in the medical world as ‘post-viral fatigue’. The condition has been under the spotlight recently as many people have suffered ‘Long Covid’, when symptoms of coronavirus persist for more than a month. One of these symptoms is indeed a persistent fatigue. This blog will consider how exercise – balanced with rest – can help alleviate symptoms of post-viral fatigue, in order to help you make a full recovery.

Symptoms and Causes

Symptoms of post-viral fatigue can very from person to person, and can fluctuate in severity. As well as the obvious tiredness, someone with post-viral fatigue may experience anything from headaches and muscle pain, to poor sleep and flu-like symptoms such as dizziness and poor temperature control. (For a full list of symptoms read our newsletter which you can access here).

In this way, it is very similar to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; indeed, the two are often confused. However, while there is no consensus as to a cause for CFS, it is widely agreed that post-viral fatigue is caused when the immune response to a virus continues in the body once the virus has passed. Chemicals known as cytokines that are released to fight off a virus remain present, causing inflammation and preventing the body from functioning as normal. Unlike CFS, it is possible in most cases to make a relatively quick recovery from post-viral fatigue, when a carefully managed recovery programme is followed. Key to this is a good balance of exercise and rest.

Exercise as a Recovery Strategy from Post Viral Fatigue

As a profession, we are normally the first to extoll the benefits of exercise: getting the body moving again after an injury can help speed up the recovery process, and the benefits of a good endorphin rush to everything from sleep to general wellbeing cannot be overstated. Indeed, we often encourage patients to get moving as soon as possible after an injury to aid their recovery. So it might sound a little strange to hear us saying that when it comes to exercise to alleviate post-viral fatigue, you should proceed with caution.

The reason for this is that when suffering from post-viral fatigue, your body is particularly susceptible to ‘post-exertional malaise’. As your energy levels can fluctuate from day to day, you might feel like you can take on your normal 5k one day, only to find you feel much worse the next. Sometimes it only takes a very minimal level of activity to provoke symptoms of post-viral fatigue; certainly doing too much too soon can actually impede your recovery. For this reason, we would recommend adopting a ‘Graded Exercise Therapy’ approach. Again we have a leaflet on this, which you can download at the following page. You can find more about this here, Click here

but in essence this involves the following steps:

  • Find your baseline level (i.e. what you can comfortably do every day, even on a bad day). Note this might be much less than you would normally be used to doing. Gentle stretching and walking are good ways to start.

  • Commit to doing this every day. (It helps if the exercise is something you enjoy).

  • Build up in small steps as you are ready.

The most important part of this process is the first – finding a baseline level and building your exercise routine around this to make sure that you do not over-exert yourself. This is also known as ‘pacing’ and again we have a leaflet covering this topic at the following link. Clinic here .

In just the same way that a marathon runner would pace themselves during a race to make sure they don’t go too fast too early, you should find a level of exercise that you will be able to consistently sustain throughout your recovery period. This pacing also relates to activities that require mental exertion such as work, daily chores or socialising.