How a Wellness Fitness Exam Can Help You After a Long Layoff from Exercise

A Marine Corps sergeant uses a foam roller during a foundational movement class on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Davis L. Brummett, a combat instructor with Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry-West, Camp Pendleton, California, uses a foam roller during a foundational movement class on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, April 13, 2023. (Lance Cpl. Erick Reyes/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

After a lengthy illness or injury, conducting a wellness fitness exam before diving back into your usual routine is important. When I recently experienced an upper respiratory infection that turned into bronchitis, I learned the hard way that pushing myself too soon only led to further downtime and more antibiotics. After a few days of rest and relative inactivity, I realized it was time to test my flexibility, mobility, cardio function, strength and muscle stamina before picking up where I left off.

The workout starts like a mobility day:

Repeat five times.

  • Easy cardio 5 minutes
  • Stretch, roll, massage 5 minutes

However, instead of repeating the “stretch, roll, and massage 5 minutes” each set of the routine, you replace the mobility/flexibility exercises with a series of calisthenics or lightweight lifting movements to check joint stiffness and muscle weakness.

You may want to do 2-3 sets above before performing the following movements to test your overall wellness. This is a good warm-up for any workout, regardless of illness or injury, but it is effective if coming back from a lengthy absence.

Next, warm up with an easy cardio session and some stretching, such as biking or walking for 10-15 minutes. Gradually increase the intensity, adding calisthenics first, then working in a few lightweight weightlifting exercises to assess the effects on your joints and muscles. A light jog and some additional weightlifting will further test your cardio and strength.

For example:

  • Bike or elliptical machine 5 minutes (assess heart rate, breathing rate, coughing)
  • Do 5 minutes of upper-body work: push-ups, pull-ups, dumbbell curls, overhead presses, rows and dips for 5-10 repetitions of each.

The goal is to assess how your heart rate and breathing handle cardio activity. Does a certain heart rate cause you to cough or hurt your knees, back or shoulders? If not, continue. If so, consider doing the stretching portion of mobility day instead and just walking for cardio to keep the heart rate down.

Here’s a lower-body set example:

  • Bike, walk, or other 5 minutes (keep the heart rate down if needed; otherwise, push it)
  • Work 5 minutes of the lower body: squats, lunges, leg extensions, leg curls, leg presses, walking stairs, deadlift with light weights, etc.

The goal is to assess how you can push the cardio (if there are no lung issues) and how your leg muscles and joints handle 5-10 reps of the exercises listed (or add others you prefer). If there is pain, go back to stretching and using massage tools. If not, try another upper- or lower-body set after another five-minute cardio set.

If you want to take the assessment further and have the facilities, do 4-5 sets of the above stretching, upper- and lower-body exercise options. Then finish off with a swim and dynamic stretching in chest-deep water, taking advantage of the buoyancy of the water to work out any lingering stiffness and help boost your flexibility and mobility. This overall assessment should be enough of a workout, as it is just helping to ease you back into your routine, with a better understanding of any areas needing more attention.

Be mindful of persistent congestion or shortness of breath and look for stiffness or soreness that could indicate the need for a slower return to full workouts. Don’t make the mistake of jumping back in at your pre-illness/injury level, which could lead to muscle and joint pain, as well as the potential to worsen lung issues. Take it slow and be prepared for gradual progress; it may take twice as long to return to where you were before.

Key Takeaways

After recovering from illness or injury, consider a wellness fitness exam to test your flexibility, mobility, cardio function, strength and muscle stamina. The same model above could be used by those who have not exercised in a very long time and would be considered new to fitness.

The key to a successful wellness exam is starting slowly and gradually working out any kinks to avoid over-stressing the body.

When it is time to prioritize your health and well-being again, get the information you need to return safely and effectively to exercise by checking out our workout ideas and conducting a wellness fitness exam.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for fitness and basic training tips, or keeping up with military life and benefits, has you covered. Subscribe to to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues