exercise physiology return to work conditioning

How Exercise Physiology can Help with Routine

Let’s talk about routine… How important is it in our day-to-day life, really??

You know that feeling when you’re on holiday, and all those good lifestyle practises – like the gym, early bedtimes and food prep – just feel so far away? 

So when work starts back up again, there’s that little part of you that’s actually relieved to get back to normal routine, where you have things to do and places to be? Who would have thought!


Why do we need routine? 

Routine assists in forming and maintaining consistent habits. Being on holiday is great and we all need to take a break from time to time – We definitely aren’t disputing that! But being away from work for extended periods is not always a good thing as it disrupts these consistent habits. Those who are unemployed or unable to work due to a physical or mental health condition experience this directly. 

For example, someone with depression often lacks the drive and motivation to complete everyday tasks – even simple things like getting out of bed. A lack of structure regarding sleep and wake times is often the catalyst for loss of routine in other areas too, such as meal times and keeping on top of weekly housework tasks.

Work commitments, either paid or voluntary, provide a purpose to the day that drives you to get out of bed in the morning. They impose structure and a need for discipline and planning. When this purpose is gone, you’re relying on yourself to act as a timekeeper. Think of it like a blackboard with lines already drawn on it, versus having a whole blank, open slate to fill. Where do you start?? 


Getting some lines on the blackboard 

You might have noticed… But we are definitely advocates of the importance of having time commitments and obligations to meet, in order to support a positive routine. We do understand that time commitments for people who have been off work for a period of time can become quite daunting – sometimes people get used to their empty blackboard.

Encouraging people to join clubs, volunteer their time, or seek part-time work (if appropriate), are all ways to get more timestamps in the diary, and work towards a healthy, fulfilling routine. And of course, structured exercise is a great place to start… 

routine exercise physiology structure

Exercise Physiology for Routine

Being exercise physiologists specialising in the return-to-work space, we are very aware of the necessity of routine for getting someone ready to return to work. How is someone who gets up at 11am and doesn’t eat until 2pm going to return to their previous role carrying and unpacking boxes from 7am?

Having a structured exercise program provides a fixed commitment – it helps by getting some lines onto the chalkboard. Things to do, places to be and times to be there. A reason to set the alarm and wake up on time… A reason to get out of bed and get dressed… A reason to have a proper breakfast to fuel for the day.

Even one or two fixed commitments in the day help to create structure as the rest of the day is built around it. Furthermore, it helps to promote those small, healthy habits – for example that early morning exercise session provides a reason to get to bed earlier the night before. When someone is due to return to work soon, we encourage them to structure their day as they would if going to work, so these habits can start to re-form. 


Planning for the Week

In some cases, we may take a further step back and look at the entire week. A slightly bigger picture approach, to create flow and give people a sense of control as those days merge together. 

This is particularly helpful for individuals affected by prolonged fatigue – common among those with mental health conditions, chronic pain, post-cancer or after a viral infection. Providing structure across not only the day, but the entire week can help them to manage their symptoms. 

We often see ‘boom and bust’ activity patterns where an individual does too much when they’re feeling good (boom), resulting in a crash (bust). By planning activities for the week in advance, the tasks can be more evenly distributed over the days to promote more stable energy expenditure and therefore less symptom exacerbation. 


So while the thought of a never-ending holiday is blissful, the reality is unlikely to be as glamorous. 

Love it or hate it, work – regardless of whether it is paid work or not – is important for imposing routine and structure. We know “routine and structure” don’t sound overly exciting, but with their help we create time for those healthy behaviours as well as all of the things we enjoy. 


Author: Yolanda van Vugt
Editor: Tessa Nielsen

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