One Year Later: How Has COVID-19 Affected Our Fitness?

A woman wearing a yellow sweater and a mask jogs along a waterfront during the pandemic.

?DjelicS / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Digital workout classes dominated 2020 while gyms were closed, and experts say virtual fitness isn’t going away anytime soon.
  • People have widely taken to the outdoors as a place to work out safely and escape from the confines of their home.
  • While people are sitting more hours than they used to, many are taking advantage of their newfound free time to squeeze in more exercise.

March 11 marks the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, nearly every aspect of our lives has been upended—especially our fitness. Our regular workout routines went out the window as shutdown orders forced gyms and studios to close.

Virtual exercise classes exploded in popularity and home gym equipment sold out in stores. But despite access to online workouts, many of us have yet to fully rebuild our pre-pandemic fitness routines, and it may have lasting impacts on our health. 

Let’s take a closer look at how the pandemic has impacted our fitness over the last 12 months.

Workouts Went Digital

By and large, the biggest fitness trend of the pandemic has been the rise of virtual workouts. Mindbody, an app that helps people find and book fitness and wellness classes, found that 70% of its customers are exercising with pre-recorded workout videos—an increase from just 17% who did so before the pandemic.

People also have been turning to live-stream workouts to stay in shape. While just 7% of Mindbody users tuned into live-stream exercises classes before the pandemic, that number has skyrocketed to 75%.

Nicole Thompson, MA

Exercising from the comfort of the living room saves time and money while eliminating exposure to COVID.

— Nicole Thompson, MA

“Home workouts such as HIIT, body-weight exercises, and yoga became a convenient (and for some only) alternative to the gym,” says Nicole Thompson, MA, a certified personal trainer and associate project manager for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “Exercising from the comfort of the living room saves time and money while eliminating exposure to COVID.”

Mindbody isn’t the only fitness-focused business that has seen customers overwhelmingly turn to digital workouts. According to a ClassPass survey, 81% of users attended digital workouts.

Experts say it’s likely this trend will stick around even after the pandemic ends.

“At-home digital fitness saved my small studio and so many others,” says Ali Cook Jackson, owner of Never Give Up Training in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and an IRONMAN certified coach. “It has become far more popular as a whole, and I believe it is here to stay, as people are seeing how easy it is to be healthy and fit from their own home.”

Gear Sold Out Everywhere

Toilet paper and Clorox wipes weren’t the only things that became hard to find last year. Supply chain disruptions, combined with a spike in demand, created widespread shortages of fitness gear during the pandemic, as well.

Eager to recreate the experience of a studio cycling class at home, people flooded Peloton with orders last year. Some customers say that while their delivery dates were scheduled for 3-10 weeks from the time of their purchase, they faced weeks of delay on top of the already-long timeline they were promised.??

More modestly priced gear also was stripped from stores. A Vox report from August 2020 found that major retailers, like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Modell’s, had “low to zero availability” of weights. Fitness equipment companies, like SPRI and Rogue Fitness, only had weights on the heavier end of the spectrum left in its stock.

Likewise, kettlebells were listed on eBay for double (or more) the usual asking price after they were sold out from stores.??

Those who were able to score some of the highly sought-after gear were able to have a gym-like experience at home, and keep up with their weight-training and cardio routines.

Stephanie Mansour, CPT

The pandemic has definitely limited how much we can exercise around others at the gym or on sports teams, so it makes sense that so many people are taking matters into their own hands.

— Stephanie Mansour, CPT

“I’ve seen many of my clients invest in workout equipment, whether that be dumbbells, resistance bands, or a big piece of equipment like the Peloton,” says Stephanie Mansour, a certified personal trainer and weight-loss coach. “The pandemic has definitely limited how much we can exercise around others at the gym or on sports teams, so it makes sense that so many people are taking matters into their own hands.”

But those who couldn’t get their hands on weights and exercise bikes instead turned to other forms of exercise that didn’t require as much equipment, adds Rusty Roquet, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, and fitness specialist at Mindbody.

“Mindbody has seen a ton of popularity surrounding the activities that require little to no equipment,” he said. “Our most popular bookings have included modalities like yoga, dance, barre, and HIIT.”

The Outdoors Became Our Gyms

The outdoors increasingly became a favorite workout destination for people during the pandemic—and for good reason. There’s a lower risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 outside, it offers far more space for working out than people have at home, and it’s a valid excuse to get out after spending so long stuck inside.

Jogging has become an extremely popular way to get fit outside. Data from Google Trends shows that interest in running hit a five-year high last spring.?? What’s more, data released by the fitness-tracking app Runkeeper in June 2020 showed that the number of people worldwide heading out on a weekly run spiked 62%, compared to the previous year.??

“Many people who weren’t runners have taken up running, too,” says Mansour. “I have a client who began running half a mile a day and steadily built up to three miles a day. She lost over 20 pounds in three months and said the mental benefits she felt from running were almost better than the weight loss.”

Day hiking also became a compelling option for people looking for a safe way to exercise in nature. According to a survey of more than 18,000 people conducted by the Outdoor Industry Association, day hiking experienced the biggest rise in participation of 122 sports, increasing 8.4% from April through June 2020, compared to the same time in 2019.??

And you can’t ignore the biking renaissance of 2020. Bike sales increased by more than 120% early in the pandemic, compared to the previous year—and may have gone even higher if an international shortage didn’t leave stocks decimated at bike stores.??

“Fitness trends such as running, walking, biking, and hiking were a great solution for getting outdoors and getting active while maintaining social distancing protocols,” says Thompson. “Those activities are a safe alternative as they are good forms of exercise and adhere to COVID health guidelines and policies.”

We’re Sitting More Than Usual

By some accounts, the pandemic has made us more sedentary, overall. An online survey of 2,000 American adults conducted by OnePoll from Aug. 28-Sept. 17, 2020 found that 63% of people felt their lifestyle had gotten more sedentary. The results also showed that people are sitting an extra four hours per day, compared to their pre-pandemic habits.??

Another study published by the International Journal of Exercise Science in September 2020, which looked at nearly 400 Kent State University students and employees, found that sedentary behavior increased after in-person classes were cancelled.??

Part of the problem is that the pandemic has eliminated many opportunities to exercise passively. For example, our usual commutes to our workplaces, which often involved some walking to public transportation or from the parking lot to the office, have been eliminated for people who are now working from home.

“It’s definitely been easy to adopt a sedentary lifestyle during this time,” says Jackson. “There is no place to go. Nothing is normal.”

But there are also other impacts of the pandemic—including the surge in stress—contributing to increase in time spent sedentary.

“A drastic change in routine, different household or work demands, health and safety concerns, and limited resources are just a few reasons why exercise wasn’t a top priority. Furthermore, stress in general can lead to lack of energy and motivation, which results in inactivity,” explains Thompson.

Harley Pasternak, MSc

Because many people are now working from home, and don’t have the one to two hours of commute each day, there is more time for them to do what they want to do to take care of their own health.

— Harley Pasternak, MSc

There’s a bright spot amid all that sitting, though. While the Kent State study found that sedentary behavior was higher in the pandemic, it also showed that people who usually have low or moderate activity levels have increased their physical activity. This may have been the result of extra free time due to campus closures, which participants could devote toward exercise.?

“As the new normal has set in, many people are actually more dedicated to their health than ever,” says Harley Pasternak, MSc, a fitness and nutrition specialist, celebrity trainer, and author of 5-Factor Fitness. “Because many people are now working from home, and don’t have the one to two hours of commute each day, there is more time for them to do what they want to do to take care of their own health.”

Exercise may also be providing an emotional escape from some of the challenging realities of the pandemic, says Jackson.

“Many individuals got fitter or found their love for fitness during quarantine, in hopes of creating a new routine or release from the stress,” she says.

If remote work stays the norm once life returns to normal and gyms reopen, we may continue to see people making fitness a greater part of their everyday routine.

“As more and more people get vaccinated, I think that more people will return to the gym while still maintaining their pandemic fitness habits. At-home workouts are definitely convenient…[but] the possibility of returning to the gym and interacting with others definitely excites people,” says Mansour. “A healthy combination of both could be perfect for convenience and the social aspect of working out.”

What This Means For You

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely altered the way we work out. With many gyms closed and efforts to keep social distance still in full swing, people have increasingly turned to at-home workouts fueled by virtual fitness classes. Outdoor activities, like hiking, jogging, and cycling, have also become an extremely popular way to work up a sweat.

However, stay-at-home orders and remote work have Americans sitting more hours than they used to. Even though many people have been exercising in the time they used to spend commuting, it’s important to continue to find ways to burn off steam and keep our fitness levels up as we enter the second year of the pandemic. 

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Article Sources
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