How to use quarantine to create a lasting exercise routine: Advice from a former student-athlete

Martha Lewand, Advice Editor

This past March, my 13-year-long swimming career came to an end. I put away my swim cap and goggles one last time and officially became a retired competitive swimmer (alternatively known as a “swammer” in the swimmer world).  

Immediately following my retirement, COVID-19 hit the United States. My home state of New Jersey was one of the first to suffer. As a result, everything, including gyms and pools, was shut down. My parents, rightfully scared, barely let me walk outside my house for the first month or so. 

While I struggled with mental health during quarantine, my physical health declined as well. With no coaches to instruct or encourage me, and, with no more feeling of responsibility to show up to practice as a team leader, I lost motivation to stay active. The self-isolation due to quarantine and the inability to workout at pools or gyms made me feel lazier. 

But about a couple months ago, I pulled myself together and created a plan that I promised to follow. My goal was not to lose the “quarantine 15,” but rather to nourish my body and create healthy habits now, so I can continue this lifestyle more easily as I transition to college in the fall. 

Starting long-term, consistent habits can be extremely hard and overwhelming. But with my workout plan, I have been pretty successful. Regardless of whether you are a former athlete or want to get in shape before the school year begins, here is my advice on how to start and maintain a feasible exercise routine. 

Tip 1: Create a schedule

  • When I make schedules and lists, I gain a sense of control and feel less anxious. Schedules are a great tool to stay organized; they allow an individual to accomplish a workout with less stress and time pressure.  
  • So, my advice is to create a schedule that fits smoothly into your lifestyle. Do not overload yourself with intense, sweat-filled five-hour-long workouts every day (I am specifically talking to you, former athletes). 
  • If you are currently in college or about to start college, like myself, try to build your workout schedule around your class schedule for the fall semester. For example, I only have one or two classes on Tuesday and Thursday, so I already do my more intense and longer workouts on Tuesday and Thursday. (And Sunday, the infamous “study/homework day,” because exercise is the perfect excuse for a stress-relieving study break and to clear my mind.) There is so much change happening so fast at college, so I thought it would be nice to already have one consistent and familiar routine heading into the semester.   

Tip 2: Walking & 3 is the magic number

  • Hot take: walking is the most underrated form of exercise. I love walking outside every day, especially during the pandemic, because it is important to take a break from a Netflix binge, get some fresh air and get those legs moving. 
  • I cannot wait to walk around my college campus in the fall too—because I can explore campus and familiarize myself with where everything is located. When cold weather comes, I plan to walk on a treadmill and put on an episode of my favorite Netflix show. But, beware, if you do this, I recommend reading the episode synopsis beforehand. (Crying on a treadmill in your college gym because your favorite character died on Criminal Minds doesn’t sound too fun.) 
  • In conjunction with walking every day, I like to complete strength training and high intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises about three times a week. I found that doing this three times a week is the perfect happy medium.
  • I found that doing hardcore workout challenges from Youtube every day is too time-consuming and draining. Also, as a former swimmer, I practiced between two to four hours a day six days a week for my club team, had club meets on the weekends and had high school meets and practices. And, to be frank, I never, ever want to do something like that again, because there was no balance, and it was beyond overwhelming. Three times a week is enough to make a significant, positive impact on your health without overloading. 
  • Feel free to workout more if you have time, but if you want a schedule that appropriately balances academics, exercise, social time and self-care, be mindful and try doing the intenser exercising three times a week.
  • And if the combination of cardio everyday with intense exercise three times a week doesn’t float your boat, do whatever exercise you admire the most. Don’t be hesitant to join a varsity, club or intramural team for the sport you formerly played or have never participated in before—it’s a great opportunity to try something new (or old) and make friends.

Tip 3: Stretch, stretch and stretch!

  • The most annoying part I find about exercising is the stretching. I have achilles tendonitis and super tight hamstrings, so I have to stretch before and after I exercise. I dread it because it can hurt and it’s annoying to do, but I know I will feel better during and after my workout, and it will prevent further injury. Stretching makes an immense difference, especially if you are in the beginning stages of a new, more intense exercise routine. 
  • Also, I strongly recommend using a yoga mat and doing ten to 15 minutes of stretching when you wake up in the morning. Your muscles will be tight and your brain will feel groggy, but it will make a significant difference in how you mentally and physically start your morning.

Tip 4: Listen to your body and mind

  • Instead of forcing yourself to reach an absurd amount of steps or telling yourself “I must walk at least five miles or for one hour straight every day”, start with something more realistic for a busy college student, like a 20 to 30 minute walk on the treadmill or outside. 
  • Don’t freak out if you can’t complete your workout either. Do what feels right. Once you feel like you’ve done enough, you are perfectly okay. Be mindful of your body and mind. Let’s say you are experiencing bad stomach cramps or you have an Economics test tomorrow that you need to dedicate most of your day to study for, then it’s totally okay to skip out on the exercise. Remember to forgive yourself because it is not the end of the world, even if it might feel like it (especially for my fellow workaholics out there).

Tip 5: Hit all the areas

  • Swimming works every muscle in the body, so my legs, abs, arms, shoulders, and almost every functioning muscle I had was in strong shape. I felt powerful throughout my whole body, which made me feel mentally and physically content. Hence, you should try to incorporate exercises that work almost every muscle, so you can feel strong everywhere.  
  • Remind yourself to make the workouts enjoyable though. Working out should not feel like a burden. If you hate exercises that involve a lot of arm and shoulder movement or strengthening, then don’t do so much of those exercises. Just a little goes a long way. 

Tip 5: Generate a playlist 

  • I am sure you have already heard this from your friends who are runners, but music is a game-changer! I wish that when I was a swimmer doing those long and draining sets, I had music to keep me more motivated. 
  • Listen to whatever floats your boat. I don’t necessarily recommend listening to slow sad songs though. I personally like listening to Indie Pop, some throwback hits from the 2000s or whatever is super fun, uplifting and catchy. My workout music of choice usually depends on my mood too.
  • Additionally, I highly recommend buying Apple’s AirPods if you do not currently own a pair. I know, it’s a steep investment, but they are so worth it. You don’t need the more expensive, fancier AirPods Pro either. I can assure you that AirPods will benefit you in an abundance of other ways as well, such as for Zoom lectures, studying and watching Netflix.

Tip 6: Make it social 

  • Regarding my favorite exercise—walking—I usually walk a longer distance, find that time goes by faster and enjoy my time significantly more when I walk with a friend. I am not always motivated to workout either, so having a walking buddy definitely motivates me to get out of bed and start moving. 
  • However, I have another hot take: I do not recommend going to the gym with or completing a high intensity workout with a friend (or a group of friends for that matter). Similar to when I study with a group of friends, I find that I get distracted easily and I am not as focused as I would be if I were studying alone; same applies to working out for me. This doesn’t apply to fun workout classes, of course.

I hope you have found these tips helpful and will experiment with them in the future. Here are some links to HIIT, strength training and yoga videos where I pull exercises from. I don’t follow an exact video, but I incorporate exercises from these videos along with exercises I did during on-land training for swimming:

If you have any thoughts, questions or suggestions for this article, or specific questions/advice regarding another topic you would like me to write about, please feel free to email me at I would love to hear from you! Plus, I need some advice ideas for my next article…feel free to share 🙂


martha speakZ 

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