Julian Howard for Insider
Contrary to expectations, some surveys suggest that 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 empowering for their minds..
The reasons many people are discovering or rediscovering physical activity — to relieve stress, boost mood, and just get outside — are those research shows are likely to lead to a lifetime of fitness.
So as gyms reopen, it’s worth questioning: Aside from their risks for spreading and contracting 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 it up her routine post-pandemic — without setting foot in the gym. She cancelled her membership in March.
Diana Karlinsey’s tale has a similar theme. Formerly an avid gym-goer who rotated between 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, only resuming 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,” Karlinsky, 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.”
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As gyms around the country begin to reopen, anecdotes like these raise the question: Do we even need them?
Risks related to spreading or contracting the novel coronavirus aside, life without gyms has coincided with some people who were formerly inactive getting moving and those who love the gym getting creative.
Others have found the absence of gyms and emergence of other options has eliminated some of the barriers that kept them from exercising in the first place.
And, the reasons many are seeking exercise today — to relieve anxiety, boost confidence, and gain energy — are those research suggests lead to lifelong fitness the way a gym discount, social media challenge, or weight goal rarely can.
One survey showed formerly infrequent exercisers are moving 88% more
People speculated that lockdown measures would only exacerbate our country’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.
Data from digital health company Withings, for example, found that while on average people’s daily step count dropped 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%.
Another survey of 2,913 people around the world found that while people who were already quite active are cutting themselves some slack or simply unable to keep up their intense routines during the pandemic, people who previously exercised once or twice a week became 88% more active when stay-at-home orders were put in place.
Those who normally exercised three times a week upped their game 38%.
Julian Howard for Insider
Mallory Bradford, a tech company employee 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 six 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 for 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 by default, doing any exercise — because her large chest made her not only uncomfortable, but self-conscious, 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 are opposed to gyms reopening now. Half of 6,636 US gym members in another poll said they won’t return.
But eventually, some will, and should — slowly and safely. Fitness and health clubs are a $30 million industry in the U.S., critical to the economy and many people’s livelihoods.
And plenty of people, including yours truly, really like them. You simply can’t recreate the camaraderie of a fitness class, hands-on attention of a yoga class, or the presence of a swimming pool through Zoom.
Mehdi Fedouach/Getty Images
But their shutdown has 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 — Segar said. Our relationship with physical activity is no different. “Resilience is about rolling with the punches,” she said.
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. Jebidiah 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 post-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 of being 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 shows that 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 simply move one way to 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 says.
Plus, people who’ve been at 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 mental health telemedicine service Brightside, 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 says, “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 wonderful side effect.”
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