How the pandemic is changing our exercise habits

FILE PHOTO: People exercise at the gym of the London aquatics centre, following the reopening of swimming pools as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in London, Britain, July 25, 2020. REUTERS
Are you exercising more or less since the coronavirus pandemic began?

According to a new study that focused on physical activity in the United Kingdom, most of us — not surprisingly — have been less physically active since the pandemic and its waves of lockdowns and quarantines began. Some people, however, seem to be exercising as much or more than before, and surprisingly, a hefty percentage of those extra-active people are older than 65. The findings have not yet been peer reviewed, but they add to a mounting body of evidence from around the globe that the coronavirus is remaking how we move, although not necessarily in the ways we may have anticipated.

The pandemic lockdowns and other containment measures during the past six months and counting have altered almost every aspect of our lives, affecting our work, family, education, moods, expectations, social interactions and health.

None of us should be surprised, then, to learn that the pandemic seems also to be transforming whether, when and how we exercise. The nature of those changes, though, remains rather muddled and mutable, according to a number of recent studies. In one, researchers report that during the first few weeks after pandemic-related lockdowns began in the United States and other nations, Google searches related to the word “exercise” spiked and remained elevated for months.

And many people seem to have been using the information they gleaned from those searches by actually exercising more. An online survey conducted in 139 countries by RunRepeat, a company that reviews running shoes, found that a majority of people who had been exercising before the health crisis began reported exercising more often in the early weeks after. A separate survey of almost 1,500 older Japanese adults found that most said they had been quite inactive in the early weeks of lockdowns, but by June, they were walking and exercising as much as ever.

A gloomier June study, however, using anonymized data from more than 450,000 users of a smartphone step-counting app, concluded that, around the world, steps declined substantially after lockdowns began. Average daily steps declined by about 5.5% during the first 10 days of a nation’s pandemic lockdowns and by about 27% by the end of the first month.

But most of these studies and surveys relied on people recalling their exercise habits, which can be unreliable, or looked at aggregate results, without digging into differences by age, socioeconomic group, gender and other factors, which might turn up telling variations in how people’s exercise habits might have changed during the pandemic.

So, for the new study, which has been posted at a biology preprint site awaiting peer-review, researchers at University College London turned to data from a free, activity-tracking smartphone app available in the United Kingdom and some other nations. The app uses GPS and similar technologies to track how many minutes people had spent walking, running or cycling, and allows users to accumulate exercise points that can be used for monetary or other rewards. (One of the study’s authors works for the app maker but the company did not provide input into the results or analysis of the research, according to the study’s other authors.)

The researchers gathered anonymized data from 5,395 app users living in the United Kingdom who ranged in age from adolescent to older adults. All of them had been using the app since at least January 2020, before the pandemic had spread to that country.

The researchers used data from the app on users’ birth dates and ZIP codes to divide people by age and locale to learn how much they exercised in January. Then they began comparing, first to the early days of social-distancing restrictions in various parts of the United Kingdom, then to the stricter lockdowns that followed and finally, to the dates in midsummer when most lockdowns in that country eased.

They found, unsurprisingly, that almost everyone’s exercise habits changed when the pandemic started. An overwhelming majority worked out less, especially once full lockdowns began — regardless of their gender or socioeconomic status. The drop was most marked among those people who had been the most active before the pandemic and among people under the age of about 40 (who were not always the same people).

After lockdowns lifted or eased, most people began exercising a bit more often, but, in general, only those older than 65 returned to or exceeded their previous minutes of exercise.

The results are surprising, says Abi Fisher, an associate professor of physical activity and health at University College London, who oversaw the new study, “especially because 50 percent of the older group were 70 or older.”

Of course, these older people, like the other men and women in the study, downloaded and used an exercise app, which distinguishes them from a vast majority of people around the world who do not use such apps. The study also looked only at “formal” exercises like walking, running or cycling and not lighter activities like strolling or gardening, which can likewise benefit health and most likely also changed during the pandemic.

And the study tells us nothing about why exercise habits differed for people during the pandemic, although some mixture of circumstance and psychology may very likely be a factor. Older people probably had more free time for exercise than younger adults who are juggling child care, work and other responsibilities during the pandemic, Fisher says. They also might have developed greater concerns about their immune systems and general health, motivating them to get up and move.

Far more large-scale and long-term research about exercise during the pandemic is needed, she said. But for now, the message of the available research seems to be that we may all want to monitor how much we are moving to help assure that we are exercising enough.

“While it is no surprise that the lockdowns disrupted people’s exercise patterns,” Fisher said, “we cannot just assume everyone will bounce back once restrictions are lifted. We need to help people to get back to doing regular exercise, within the limits of ongoing pandemic restrictions, of course.”

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