Has the COVID-19 pandemic put you in a workout slump? If your fitness habits aren’t what they used to be, rest assured — you’re in good company.
A growing body of evidence shows that the pandemic has profoundly changed how much people exercise, not only in the United States but around the world. In a study published in November 2020 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that, based on more than 19 million smartphone-based, step-counting measurements taken from January 19 to June 1, 2020, physical activity levels dropped dramatically in many countries after the pandemic struck.
In a study published in February 2021 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, experts used an activity-tracking smartphone app to look at the exercise habits of nearly 5,400 people in the United Kingdom since the start of the pandemic. When it came to walking, running, and cycling, activity levels initially dropped the most in people who had been the most active before the pandemic, as well as in people ages 65 or younger. And once pandemic restrictions were eased, only people older than 65 appeared to bounce back with their physical activity.
“I’m seeing people who were formerly active — who used to go to the gym a lot or group exercise classes — and they stopped doing that because of the pandemic,” says Cindy Lin, MD, a clinical associate professor of sports and spine medicine and assistant director of clinical innovation at the Sports Institute at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. She typically sees patients who are having trouble with sports or exercise for a variety of reasons, sometimes due to musculoskeletal problems like tendon injuries or osteoarthritis.
Brandee L. Waite, MD, director of physical medicine and rehabilitation for the sports medicine fellowship at the University of California in Davis, says she isn’t surprised that people have struggled to maintain their workout routines during the pandemic.
“Whenever there is a disruption in your normal day-to-day routine, the things that seem to get compromised are the things that don’t make you money or don’t take care of your family,” she explains — and frequently your own personal fitness is one of the things that gets left by the wayside.
You may be less motivated to exercise if feelings of isolation from social distancing are causing your mental health to plummet, Dr. Waite notes. Even though physical activity can be a great antidote for lifting mood and easing depression, anxiety, and stress, struggling with any of them can make you less motivated to get moving in the first place. And depending on where you live, you may also have fewer opportunities to exercise because of gym closures and working from home, she adds.
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But even if you have time on your hands and aren’t noticeably depressed, you may still find it harder to exercise than you did before, now that the COVID-19 pandemic has likely flipped your normal schedule upside down. “Sometimes when we have more time, we’re like, ‘I’ll do it later,’” says James Houle, PhD, who specializes in sport psychology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Whereas if you have a lot going on, you’ll schedule in exercise and stick to that plan, he says.
Whether your workouts have been disrupted by gym closures, increased family responsibilities, or difficulty staying motivated as the pandemic wears on, here are seven tips that may help you get back on track.
1. Set Goals and a Timeline
One way to motivate yourself, says Dr. Houle, is by setting small, realistic, and measurable goals that you can write down in a list and check off one by one.
For example, Houle says, if you’re trying to get stronger by doing push-ups, you can start by doing a number that’s manageable for you, either each day or on certain days of the week. Then try to gradually increase that number as time goes on. The same principle can apply to any activity, such as running or jogging a certain distance or length of time.
For many people, scheduling workouts in advance is a critical first step toward actually doing them, adds Waite. “I think putting something on your schedule, on the calendar as an appointment that you block off, means you’re much more likely to adhere to it,” she explains.
But be realistic, says Houle. If you like to exercise in the evening, it can be a great way to blow off steam, he says. If you like to knock out your workouts at the beginning of the day (before you get distracted with other things), schedule them for first thing in the morning.
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2. Hold Yourself Accountable
Having another person holding you accountable to exercise often means you’re more likely to follow through with your goals, says Houle. And an accountability partner doesn’t necessarily need to join you in person, he adds.
“I’ve had people call or text each other. Or on different apps you can share workouts,” Houle explains. “That kind of stuff can be motivating and fun.”
And, yes, turn to technology. “There are a variety of apps and wearable devices that can help support people in moving more,” Dr. Lin notes. Some provide challenges and full workout plans, while others simply have you tracking movement (like laps swum, miles run, or wheelchair pushes), she adds.
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3. Ease Back Into Exercise
No matter how fit you are — or were — if you’ve spent a period of time (longer than a few weeks) out of an exercise routine, it’s important to gradually work back up to that same intensity.
“Where I see a lot of people get discouraged is if they think, How come I can’t do it the way I used to do it? That’s kind of unfair,” says Houle. It’s key to acknowledge that your routine has been disrupted, rather than try to prove you’re still as fit as you used to be, he advises.
As a general rule, says Waite, if you’ve been inactive for longer than a month, you should resume your physical activity at 25 to 50 percent of the level you were previously accustomed to (either for time or intensity). For most people, she says, 50 percent is a good starting point. Then increase it by about 10 to 15 percent per week, which she recommends as “a good guideline to avoid injury.”
And don’t be discouraged if you need to increase the time or intensity more gradually. Waite says, “Some people have to increase it by 10 percent every 2 weeks. You have to listen to your body.”
4. Break It Up
Getting in a workout doesn’t always mean you have to block off an uninterrupted hour of your time. In fact, there are benefits to shorter workouts throughout the day.
“We know that the average American sits about seven hours a day, and that has negative health effects,” says Lin. Taking regular breaks from sitting to do a 5- or 10-minute body weight exercise, or even just to move around, can add up for cumulative health benefits.
If you don’t have the time or stamina to go for an hour-long run, Lin suggests running or jogging in intervals of 5 to 10 minutes. Or try a 5- to 10-minute strength training workout that you can do in whatever space you have available, she says.
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It might help you to visualize shorter workouts is as “fitness snacking,” rather than a large “meal” that you would get from a longer workout, Waite says. In the end, multiple fitness snacks throughout the day might add up to one large meal.
But don’t beat yourself up if you only manage to get a single fitness snack on some days. “Even a 15-minute workout is better than no workout,” Waite says.
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5. Make Your Workouts Social (Safely)
Exercise can make us stronger and keep our bodies healthy, but for a lot of us, at least before the pandemic, it was an opportunity to socialize, too — at the gym, in a workout class, or as part of a running or walking group. For those missing this latter component, it’s no wonder it’s been hard to stick with an exercise routine.
If you live in an area where it’s safe to attend group exercise classes at a gym, and you’re comfortable doing so with the right safety measures, check out what options are available in your area, Waite suggests. Some gyms and personal trainers are offering outdoor classes, too.
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But if you’re not ready for in-person classes just yet, many gyms have pivoted to on-demand or even live virtual classes, Waite says. You can check with your local gym to see if they offer virtual options that allow you to interact with instructors or other gym members.
You could also opt for a walk or jog with a friend or family member, as social distancing practices allow. Or if you have to look after kids, you could make your workouts a family affair, Lin says. “Turn on the radio or play a song on YouTube, and you and your kids can dance to it,” she suggests.
6. Get Outside
Whether you’re working out alone or with someone else, breaking a sweat in the great outdoors can reduce stress and immerse you in nature.
“There are a lot of studies showing that just being in nature, in the outdoors, has a lot of benefits for improving physical and mental health,” says Lin. In one study published in June 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers found that spending at least 120 minutes per week in a natural environment — such as a park, forest, or beach — was linked to significant improvement in self-reported health and well-being, with the greatest benefits seen in people who spent 200 to 300 minutes per week in nature.
Waite notes that when weather allows, many gyms have moved group exercise classes outside. And even if these options aren’t offered in your area, you may prefer to work out on your own outside, whether by watching an exercise video in your backyard or trying body-weight strength exercises in a local park.
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Lin also recommends checking out the Sports Institute's free exercise video resources.
7. Be Your Own Cheerleader
If you haven’t worked out in a while, exercise can sometimes feel like a chore. It can be easy to beat yourself up and feel like you’re lazy or weak for not getting it done. If you struggle with this mindset, Waite suggests reframing exercise as an enjoyable activity that you look forward to. (Note: It’s easier to think of exercise as enjoyable if you start by picking workouts you do indeed find enjoyable.)
Self-talk related to exercise definitely affects mindset, Houle says. “If I get up in the morning, and I go, ‘Man, I didn’t exercise yesterday. I’m so lazy,’ and I repeat that, I’m going to start to believe that,” he says.
Instead, he suggests using positive self-talk to help you motivate yourself to exercise. “Get up and go, ‘This is what I’m going to do today, it’s going to feel good, and I can do this.’ It’s going to feel silly in the beginning, but if you stick with it, you’ll feel more motivated and excited about exercising,” Houle says.