For many of us, the loss of our fitness routines — the social aspects of a regular exercise class, scheduled walks with friends — is one of the stresses imposed by COVID-19 restrictions. Yet maintaining, or possibly increasing, your physical activity level seems even more important than usual in the face of this new coronavirus. While we don't know exactly how fitness and exercise affect this particular virus, we do know that regular physical activity boosts the immune system. One study shows just a single dose of moderate- to high-intensity exercise can bolster the immune system. And a strong immune system can help fight off the effects of viral illnesses.
Also, exercise confers multiple benefits on essentially all of your body's systems, from your muscles, bones, heart, and lungs to your brain. Importantly, it increases insulin sensitivity and reduces stress hormones, which further helps your body fight infections. Significantly, exercise helps people manage anxiety and depression. Even a single bout of exercise can help if you're feeling anxious or depressed, perhaps due to the fear of becoming ill, financial concerns, and worry about the well-being of loved ones. But how can you get enough physical activity in a confined space and without access to your usual exercise machines or classes?
Be flexible about the types of exercise you choose
Switching your exercise to a more confined space may require some flexibility on your part. When I counsel my patients about exercise and suggest flexibility, they often think of yoga or stretching. But in this case, I am suggesting being more flexible about your choice of exercise and less rigid about holding onto prior habits. Keep in mind:
- Change may be good for you and your body. Perhaps your usual activity is a barre class, yoga, Pilates, indoor cycling, or a boot camp. Your body is accustomed to the muscles worked and the intensity of your accustomed activity. Varying your choice of exercise reduces boredom, and lessens your chance of musculoskeletal injury from repetitive movements. It may also engage new muscle groups.
- Your muscles are agnostic. They don't know, nor do they care, what kind of workout clothes you are wearing, what kind of space you are in, or what kind of music is playing. Your muscles are highly adaptable. Simply put, if you apply a specific demand, such as lifting weights or doing squats, your muscles will become stronger to allow you to meet the new requirement. And you can do that even in a very small area.
If you feel confined in your available exercise area — and, as some people complain, like a prisoner in your home due to stay-at-home orders — consider that exercise actually has been shown to improve depression, stress, and anxiety in people who are in prison. Even within limited space, people can do body weight exercises similar to these workouts, such as push-ups, bridges, squats, yoga poses, and mat Pilates. Want more? Try challenging your standing balance and performing agility work by hopping from side to side or front and back.
Reshape your exercise routine during stay-at-home orders
Here are four ways to reshape your exercise routine during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Go online to find classes and specific exercises. Join one of the many exercise class recordings from the YMCA or commercial trainers designed for in-home exercise with minimal or no equipment. Check out a library of exercises for every muscle group and level of difficulty offered by the American Council on Exercise.
- Consider taking a live exercise class online. This adds a bit of social connection (ask a friend to join so that you can see them in class). Also, for many of us, setting an appointment for a live class will improve compliance compared to on-demand videos, which can be watched — or avoided — at any time of day.
- Get outside. One of few excuses for leaving your home, other than to get food and medicine, is to exercise. Exposure to nature is particularly beneficial to combat the blues from staying inside.
- Have fun and try something new. If you were never comfortable joining a Zumba or dance class, this may be your opportunity to try it out at home. You can choose to turn off your camera (at least until you get the moves down).