With a pandemic raging, how active have you been this year?
As vaccines roll out and people cautiously return to the world, I spend a lot of time thinking about the non-runners. The indoorsmen and women of the world, whose gyms have closed — the people without established home workout routines.
Among the myriad reasons that you might notice a dip in your health and fitness routine, the psychological and physical stresses of isolation and reduced social activity are bubbling to the surface.
Or maybe your local gym shut down.
Or maybe you’re out of work and can’t afford the membership.
Over the course of a few blog updates, we’re going to look at how and why people across America are working out less during Covid. In the first part, we’ll break down how this disruption impacts peoples’ motivation and capacity for routine. In the second half, we’ll take a look at the potential outcomes, solutions, and how physical therapy may play a role in safeguarding your return to healthy routines.
In a time where people are facing a number of personal, financial, and social crises, the decline in personal physical activity and wellness is a parallel problem. Still, that’s no reason for you to look down on yourself.
For the current generations, this is an unprecedented disruption.
In spite of popular depictions of America, statistics from 2018 show that nearly 50% of people ages 18 and up engage in some kind of physical activity, though only around 23% engage in aerobic and strength training workouts.
But even with those numbers, early reports from during the pandemic suggest that America is rapidly becoming more sedentary as a direct result of social distancing and other safety measures.
The Impact of Isolation and Disruption
But what’s actually causing that decline?
People can still run or workout from home, and with all kinds of classes on YouTube for yoga or crossfit, it’s not like there’s a lack of options.
To explain, let’s start with an anecdote.
Personally, I love climbing.
Living in a flat chunk of the country means that my best bet is a climbing gym. And honestly? I love the local climbing gym, too.
There’s a good warmup area with weights and aerobic equipment, the routes are updated each month for a new challenge, and you can easily kill a few hours after work just decompressing and getting your fitness in.
Access to my climbing gym was physically and mentally a major part of my personal wellness routine. I could work out, be social, and get out of the house all at once.
Enter Covid-19. A pandemic. A major disruption of routine.
Suddenly, the gym is either closed or presents a health risk.
Even now that things have stabilized, nearly a year after the initial pandemic panic, the gym still requires reduced capacity and scheduled workout blocks. Going with friends or coworkers after work stopped, and it got a lot harder to work the gym into my day to day routine.
For a lot of people, this is a familiar story, and that’s all from my perspective as someone who’s incredibly lucky to not have health issues or financial issues in the wake of Covid.
Why am I sharing this?
I want to illustrate how changes to routine or losing access to the right kind of physical activity can gut motivation and cause someone to stop taking care of their physical health.
For me, climbing was that “right activity”. For my partner, it’s running.
While they’re able to keep running, because all the need is enough outdoor space to run, I’ve noticed a huge decline in how frequently I work out. Without access to the gym, I’ve tried running, I’ve tried home workouts, I’ve tried online yoga.
Some work better than others, but none of them motivate me to consistently work out or maintain my health like climbing did.
The results of that disruption have been pretty negative.
Over the last 8 to 12 months, I’ve put on weight. I’m less limber, my grip strength is weaker. Even my mental health has taken a dive as I worry about letting myself go. Losing access to a vital part of my routine sucks, and that’s an experience I hear echoed by a lot of my friends and colleagues.
Let’s be crystal clear — this pandemic has been hard.
I’m not here to tell anyone struggling with their body image or health routine that they’re bad or wrong. Body image, mental health, and finding ways to focus on motivation and physical activity are all taking a big hit right now.
But from the perspective of a physical therapy blog, I think it’s useful to take apart this process of disruption and look how it impacts our lives. Armed with that understanding, not only do we have a better method for avoiding it, we can also figure out how to overcome disruption in ways that are healthy for both our physical and mental health.
Understanding Our Departure From Routine
To start, let’s look at two main components of routine and how they’re impacted by unexpected disruptions. We’ve got motivation and accessibility — both of these are subject to some degree of change based on our circumstances, so let’s dig a bit deeper into that:
As a physical process, motivation works like this: you do a thing, your brain anticipates completing the task and gives you the feel good chemical dopamine as a reward.
This task-reward relationship is the basic building block for things like want, desire, addiction, or developing routines. You and your brain like to feel good, so you keep doing the thing.
The psychological perspective is when things get tricky. Tasks get infinitely more complicated than “do the thing” and thanks to the whole individualized nature of human experience, we all have different triggers for that dopamine release.
For now, let’s stick to one basic theory of motivation: intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.
This theory centers around where the stimulus for the reward process originates. Intrinsic suggests that your reward stimulus is generated internally, while extrinsic is generated from external stimuli.
For example, if you like going to the gym because it makes you feel relaxed, that’s intrinsic. If you like going to the gym because it makes you more attractive to others, that’s extrinsic.
What’s the point?
Motivation is delicate and personal.
Any disruption to routine can also disrupt your major motivating factors. If you go to the gym to look hot, social distancing might mean less people see you. If you go to the gym because you feel peaceful and healthy, the sudden health risk of Covid might turn you off.
Losing the comfort of your routine can have a lot of negative physical and emotional side effects. In turn, these side effects can make it harder to return to your routine whenever you feel comfortable doing so.
When motivation factors are disrupted, you essentially risk hitting the reset button. You might have to struggle over that initial hump of effort to regain your routine. And as we saw from the studies earlier, a lot of people are dealing with this exact situation.
I’ll cover this more in Part 2, but one major risk this disruption poses is how people retrain themselves after the pandemic.
I suspect there will be two sides: one that struggles to commit to their old habits, and another that tries to go back too fast. Even if you’ve only been away from your standard workout for six months, your body may have lost some of the strength or coordination you were used to.
Don’t jump into your old workout immediately.
Without taking your time off into account, you can put yourself at a serious risk for injuries or strains. Climbing is a good example — it abuses your joints on a good day, even when you’re fit and climbing regularly. Difficult routes put a lot of strain on your muscles, ask for a lot of coordination, and even then you can slip and fail the route.
Trying to immediately go back to your upper limit can amplify those risks to unhealthy levels. And if you push yourself too hard, then get injured, you’ll just be that much further from your initial fitness goals.
Accessibility accounts for a wide range of factors, but basically it boils down to whether or not you can consistently access the necessary parts of your routine.
Fitness routines typically include some physical element that you need access to. For me, it’s a climbing gym. For someone else, it might be running shoes or home gym equipment.
But that’s just one component, not only does access to a specific factor need to account for how motivating that factor is, you also have to consider limitations that people have no control over.
Here’s an example: in my case, the gym is open and I’m actively choosing not to go.
My concerns about health risks outweigh my motivation to go to the gym, even though by all accounts they’re doing a good job maintaining pandemic protocol. I simply don’t feel comfortable going back yet, but it is technically a choice, and technically means I don’t have full access to my routine. But it is a choice, tied to motivation.
Compare that to someone living with an autoimmune disorder, or someone that lost their job and can’t afford a gym membership, new shoes, or their standard diet? The health risks and financial impact of Covid may take the choice away from a lot of people, denying them access to their usual physical routine components whether they like it or not.
So what about…?
In these situations, the almost obvious thought is “what about home workouts” or some other, less risk intensive routine? They are certainly viable options, and if you can transition into running, outdoor activities, or home workout routines? By all means, take advantage of that.
But for a lot of people, motivation and circumstance will play a big role in determining how effective these alternatives are as replacements for your usual method of fitness.
The most basic hurdle is “I don’t like this”. Personally? I hate running. My partner runs 15 miles every Sunday morning, and in spite of their best efforts to convince me of its merits, I have a whole lifetime of evidence suggesting that running sucks and I hate it.
Is that petty? Yes.
But similar to many others, I dedicated my time to developing a routine centered around an activity that I liked. I carefully built a routine that used my personal motivation as a foundation.
Running and home workouts, video yoga, none of these compel me to be active. A vital part of my motivational structure is missing, and because of that, the whole personal fitness routine falls apart.
The mental aspect
Once again, the reason I’m sharing is to illustrate a fairly common psychological hurdle that’s been thrown in front of people during this pandemic — mental health.
Building a consistent routine is difficult. It requires time, motivation, resources, and a consistent level of stability. Lose any of these elements, and your routine can easily fall apart.
And that’s in the best of times. In the middle of a pandemic, the divide between normalcy and our day to day experience is growing. People talk about a “new normal”, we see increased reports of isolation, more people are admitting to serious bouts of depression. Even those without a history of mental struggles are expressing difficulty managing this experience.
When it comes to working out, mental health can play a major role in how willing people are to engage. In physical therapy, this is something you have to take into account — think about it, a lot of people turn to physical therapy as a form of recuperation and recovery, either following an injury or as a means of regaining strength when personal planning is too risky or ineffective.
Being set back in your fitness goals, feeling like you may not recover your full strength, or simply competing against the mental weight of wondering when things will be a little more normal? All of this presents a pretty big mental hurdle, and it can make developing or rebuilding a routine increasingly difficult.
Tending to your mental well being is equally important. Not only for the clear benefits of improving your mental health, but also because it can help you regain the motivation and will to act on your fitness goals.
While we’re all going through a similar, collective experience with Covid, the impact of that experience is fairly individualized. That makes it hard to provide solutions that will work for everyone, but there are some overarching statistics and trends like I mentioned before.
We do see a decline in physical activity throughout pandemic closures, we are seeing a higher number of people struggling with depression and other mental aftereffects related to Covid. Though it’s hard to pinpoint the individual effects, we can talk about some general options for mitigating disruption and figuring out how to safely ease into your routines going forward.
With vaccines circulating in higher numbers, it’s likely that people will start venturing out into the world again. That’s bound to include returning to the gym, taking yoga classes, and other physical activities that might have slowed with social distancing.
In Part 2 of this post, I want to focus on practical advice that will help people return safely to their usual routines. We’ll cover things how to avoid straining yourself if you stopped or slowed down in your fitness plan. I also want to talk about how to set realistic goals and fitness planning that can help mitigate the mental health aspect — we are often tied to our routines and our physical health, so it’s nice to take a professional, objective look at how and why good goals help us manage a lot more than just our fitness.
If you’ve got any questions, comments, or just want to learn more about what we do at Crom Rehabilitation, don’t be afraid to reach out. Our goal is helping people reach their peak performance through physical therapy, and we thought it would be a good time to talk about the experience a lot of people are facing because of this pandemic. We hope to see you in Part 2!