Strengthening your immune defense is a smart strategy for preventing, fighting, and mitigating the effects of the coronavirus, according to the Institute for Functional Medicine’s COVID-19 Task Force: “Moderate, regular physical activity helps immune-system function by raising levels of infection-fighting white blood cells and antibodies, increasing circulation, and decreasing stress hormones.”
IFM offers this easy-to-remember prescription: Keep moving. “Some activity is better than none, and more is better than less.”
But pandemic lockdowns, temporary closures of health clubs and gyms, and group-fitness-class cancellations have transformed how, when — and even whether — we exercise.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and lockdowns soon began. In the following weeks, there was a “massive decline” in the overall number of steps Americans took, as charted by the millions of registered Garmin fitness-tracker users.
“This is an obvious cause-and-effect scenario,” Garmin analysts explained, “and consistent with our global trend data in China, Italy, and other countries where the pandemic struck first.”
By April 2020, after lockdowns had become part of the new norm, online searches related to “home-based exercise” and “high-intensity interval training” regimens spiked, according to a British Journal of Sports Medicine study.
Garmin trackers began to see rising usage in certain activities, including a 64 percent boost in virtual cycling, 11 percent rise in yoga, and 18 percent week-to-week increase in indoor cardio workouts. Still, overall steps declined compared with the previous year.
Fitbit followed its users and noted changes by age group. The largest falloff was among those aged 18 to 29, who walked or ran about a mile and a half less per day in April 2020 than April 2019. The 65-plus group was also moving less but lost fewer steps: They slowed nearly 12 percent — from 8,238 daily steps in April 2019 compared with 7,289 in 2020.
A Belgian study noted that the “lockdown heavily reduced people’s range of opportunities to exercise.” Of the 15,737 self-reporting participants, 58 percent of the less-active cohort said they were moving more — while 30 percent said they weren’t exercising at all.
“Having less time, sitting more, and missing the familiar way and competitive element of exercising were the main reasons for a self-reported exercise reduction,” researchers concluded.
Lockdowns, school and park closures, and youth-sports cancellations curtailed much organized activity among U.S. children. A study in BMC Public Health found that throughout spring 2020, 82 percent of parents of preteens aged 9 to 13 said their kids were more sedentary.
“Of public-health concern is [that] these short-term changes in behavior in reaction to COVID-19 may become permanently entrenched, leading to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in children as they get older,” says lead author Genevieve Dunton, PhD, MPH, professor of preventive medicine and psychology at the University of Southern California.
“If the pandemic is resetting children’s trajectories for physical activity, that can be difficult to change.”