The pandemic moved many workouts to virtual platforms. What lessons can we carry forward?
If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic shut down, it’s movement — both within our communities and around the world. But that impact swiftly extended to how we move our bodies, too, generating aftershocks that may forever change our relationship with exercise.
Most gyms and fitness studios shuttered their physical doors, at least temporarily, in response to the new global reality. But many rapidly launched or expanded virtual portals to exercise, ranging from Spin and Pilates to yoga, dance, and martial arts classes. A report by fitness research firm ClubIntel showed that three-quarters of newly closed brick-and-mortar gyms offered on-demand and livestream group workouts by early April 2020 — a number tripling since just two years earlier.
Meanwhile, vast numbers of people pivoted by tuning in to on-screen workouts, which spared them from COVID infection risks and offered a welcome dose of flexibility. A May 2020 survey of 700 people who used the MindBody health and wellness app showed that 80% had livestreamed workouts since the pandemic’s start, compared with only 7% in 2019.
Now that lockdowns are (hopefully) in the rearview mirror, Harvard experts say the pandemic has transformed the ways we approach exercise — mostly for the better. And we can apply these hard-earned lessons going forward, regardless of how the pandemic continues to evolve.
“It emboldened us to try new forms of movement,” says Dr. Lauren Elson, a physiatrist (a doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation) at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network. “I myself had never gone the extra mile to try other types because I already had a set routine. I think a lot of people had to become more flexible, because normal options were not there.”
Physical and mental effects
It didn’t take long after the advent of the global health crisis for public health organizations to recommend online exercise classes as a way to make up for lost activity. But it was vital to reinforce how strongly physical activity factored in to staying both physically and mentally healthy as the pandemic bore down. “It would have been really easy to completely turn off exercise, so finding resources and shifting gears really helped people weather the storm,” Dr. Elson says.
Exercise-induced bursts of endorphins and other natural brain chemicals that boost mood were especially helpful during the fraught first months of the pandemic, says Dr. Beth Frates, director of lifestyle medicine and wellness in the Department of Surgery at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital.
“People could better manage the anxiety and stress of the daily news if they were exercising,” Dr. Frates says. “Exercise was a great way to get away from the drama of the moment, and it still is.” She notes that vigorous movement also beats back food cravings and promotes sleep.