- Some surveys have suggested that, contrary to expectations, gym closures and lockdowns have prompted previously inactive people to move more.
- The absence of gyms has broadened our idea of what "exercise" means and, in some ways, made it more accessible to people who previously recoiled at the word.
- Even people who love the gym have gotten creative with their workouts, which can be good for their bodies and minds.
- The reasons many people are discovering or rediscovering physical activity — to relieve stress, boost their mood, and just get outside — are those that research has found are likely to lead to a lifetime of fitness.
- So as gyms reopen, it's worth questioning: Aside from their risks for spreading the coronavirus, do we even need them?
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Wendy Schultz was one of those people gyms count on for profit: She paid for a membership but never went, always prioritizing her business and kids over fitness.
But once the coronavirus pandemic hit, Schultz, who lives in Sarasota, Florida, started walking a few miles a day to get out of the house and relieve stress. By consequence, but not intention, she's lost 20 pounds.
"Now I see that I don't need to carve out much time in my day to get in some exercise and improve my health," Schultz told Insider.
She plans to keep up her routine post-pandemic — without setting foot in the gym. She canceled her membership in March.
Diana Karlinsey's tale has a similar theme. Formerly an avid gymgoer who rotated among three facilities, she's dusted off old fitness DVDs and spent more time outdoors in lockdown. She'll be nixing two of her memberships once the gyms reopen, going only to an occasional class at the local YMCA where her husband works out.
"I realized that I could get a good workout at home, and I could do it when I wanted," Karlinsey, a retired labor-relations specialist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, told Insider. "I also realized that going to the gym stressed me out, which is the main reason I will be quitting."
Crystal Cox/Business Insider
As gyms around the country begin to reopen, anecdotes like these raise a question: Do we even need them?
Risks related to spreading or contracting the novel coronavirus aside, life without gyms has led to some people who were inactive getting moving and those who love the gym getting creative.
Others have found that the absence of gyms and the emergence of other options have eliminated some of the barriers that kept them from exercising in the first place.
And the reasons that many are seeking exercise today — to relieve anxiety, boost confidence, and gain energy — are those that research has found lead to lifelong fitness the way a gym discount, social-media challenge, or weight goal rarely can.
One online survey found that formerly infrequent exercisers were moving 88% more
People speculated that lockdown measures would only exacerbate the US's sitting problem and surely lead to weight gain with the "quarantine 15," but it's not clear that's happening. In some cases, the reverse is.
Withings, a digital-health company, found that while on average its US users' daily step count dropped by 7% when lockdown measures were put in place, states with historically more sedentary populations actually started moving more. In West Virginia, the eighth-least-active state in the US, daily step counts increased 9%.
In an online survey of 12,913 visitors to the athletic-shoe website RunRepeat.com conducted in March — which was not representative of the general population — those who were already quite active indicated they were cutting themselves some slack or simply unable to keep up their intense routines during the pandemic, while those who said they previously exercised once or twice a week increased their exercise frequency by 88% when stay-at-home orders were put in place.
Participants in the poll who said they normally exercised three times a week upped their game by 38%.
Mallory Bradford, an employee of a tech company in Chicago, is one of them. She used to take classes at a gym once or twice a week but couldn't run a mile without stopping. Now, she can run 6 miles and is considering training for a triathlon — sans gym.
"Sweating with other people? No thank you, ever, for as long as I live — or at least until there's a vaccine," she told Insider.
Redefining exercise as something that doesn't have to happen in a gym can be liberating
The absence of gyms has spawned massive libraries of virtual workouts and, in some neighborhoods, a cultural acceptance of jumping rope in a closed-down street, doing burpees in a 6-foot circle in the park, or hula-hooping on your lawn.
In other words, we're redefining what "exercise" means, and that's a good thing for those who recoil at the word alone.
"People believe that there are right and best places to be active, and it's usually formal exercise in a gym," Michelle Segar, a behavior-change scientist at the University of Michigan, told Insider. "That gets in people's way."
For years, it got in Jen Doran's way. The Long Island travel-industry worker and mom dreaded going to the gym — and so, therefore, doing any exercise — because her large chest made her not only uncomfortable but self-conscious while working out.
Once she found online "quick burn" workouts (and a better bra) about a year ago, she started to enjoy movement and the ability to take her routine on the road. With the help of a medical team and diet changes, she lost 50 pounds and quit her gym membership during the peak of her weight loss.
Now, about a year later, Doran is especially grateful she'd already mastered working out from home. She stays motivated "knowing what my body is able to do now [at 43] that I couldn't do at 25," she told Insider.
Even people who plan to return to gyms are getting creative, and that's empowering
Nearly 80% of US adults in a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted in late April and early May said they were opposed to gyms reopening now. RunRepeat said it found in another online poll it conducted that about half of 6,636 US gym members surveyed said they wouldn't return.
But eventually, some will, and should — slowly and safely. Fitness and health clubs are a $30 billion industry in the US, critical to the economy and many people's livelihoods.
And plenty of people — including yours truly — really like them. You simply can't re-create the camaraderie of a fitness class, the hands-on attention of a yoga class, or the presence of a swimming pool through Zoom.
Mehdi Fedouach/Getty Images
But their closings have allowed, or perhaps forced, some gym rats to get creative with their routines, and that's not a bad thing.
"Anything we have a long-term relationship with — careers, marriages, parenting — there are ups and downs," Segar said. Our relationship with physical activity is no different. "Resilience," she added, "is about rolling with the punches."
Practically speaking, changing it up "will allow your body rest and healing, decreasing your chances of overuse injury, while simultaneously strengthening areas previously neglected," Dr. Jedidiah Ballard, an emergency-medicine physician, previously told Insider.
Psychologically speaking, trying new (or old) activities like outdoor running or indoor dancing can be empowering because whether or not you return to or join a gym after the pandemic, "the reality is, these options will always be there," Segar said.
For Dick Lynch, a retired business professional quarantining in Burlington, Wisconsin, rediscovering running after a several-year hiatus has been "incredibly pleasurable," giving him time to think, unlike his pre-pandemic CrossFit workouts.
While he'll eventually return, "I would not have gone back to running if not for the virus," he said.
Exercising for immediate benefits leads to lifelong fitness
Not everyone has the desire, ability, or privilege to be more active during the pandemic. Some people aren't safe exercising outside, others are coping with losses of loved ones and jobs, and some are healthiest if they take these months to simply be still.
But many of those who are discovering or rediscovering movement are doing so for the reasons that give them a shot at maintaining their routines when society reopens.
Quite simply: They want to feel better right now.
Segar, who wrote "No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness," calls this "the right why" — that movement brings on an immediate boost in mood, energy, confidence, and other positive emotions.
Research has found that this type of "high-quality" motivation is lasting, while exercising because you want to fit into your pre-pandemic jeans, you signed up for a race, or you're paying for a personal trainer is not.
Being freed up to move one way today and then adjust your strategy tomorrow based on whatever didn't feel right — a "learning," not "achieving," mindset — is also a pillar of sustainable fitness, Segar said.
Plus, people who've been in a fitness routine for at least six weeks have a good chance of continuing it post-pandemic, since that's about how long it takes to form a habit, Dr. Mimi Winsberg, a triathlete, psychiatrist, and chief medical officer at Brightside, a mental-health telemedicine service, told Insider.
That's the case for Ashley Bernardi, who committed to practicing yoga daily over two months ago to get some peace of mind between homeschooling her three kids and running her public-relations business while her essential-employee husband went to work.
Now, she said, "it's become a habit like brushing my teeth, so I don't think it's going to disappear when things open up again."
If stories like hers continue to come out of the pandemic, Winsberg said, "hallelujah — that would be a wonderful side effect."
- Read more:
- People are experiencing 'adjustment disorder' as lockdowns end and society reopens, a psychiatrist says
- Stop shaming people for going outside. The risks are generally low, and the benefits are endless.
- How you can safely spend time outside while under a 'stay at home' or 'shelter in place' mandate
- How to make good enough choices during the coronavirus pandemic, since making risk-free decisions is impossible
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