This story was originally published in December 2020.
Between self-isolation, working from home and many businesses and facilities being closed, the coronavirus has resulted in more sedentary lifestyles for many. That’s led to both emotional and physical impacts on people.
However, there’s a solution: small changes can help offset those impacts.
“Obviously [COVID-19] has changed our behavior in many ways,” said James Graves, professor of Exercise, Health and Sport Sciences at University of Southern Maine. “Physical activity is just one aspect of our daily lives that’s been impacted.”
Graves noted that even under the best circumstances, relatively few people meet the recommended levels of daily physical activity. The pandemic has only made this worse as gathering restrictions have further limited opportunities to exercise in yoga classes, group fitness classes or even at the gym or community center.
A study published in August 2020 by researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong showed low physical activity levels, high amount of time spent on sedentary behaviors and long sleep duration in young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic, with less than half of the participants meeting any of the recommended guidelines for physical activity, sedentary behavior or sleep.
The impacts of a sedentary lifestyle
Sustained physical inactivity and sedentary behavior have been linked with poor physical and mental health and increased disease-specific morbidity and mortality risk. As a group, Graves said that these conditions are called “hypokinetic diseases.”
“We’re talking about things like heart disease, obesity, hypertension, hypercholesterol [and] osteoporosis,” Graves said.
Many of these conditions develop over a long period of time, but even a short period of exposure to a sedentary lifestyle can impact your health. A 2019 study from the University of Texas at Austin showed that reduction in daily steps from about 10,000 to 1,500 steps for a two week period impaired insulin sensitivity and lipid metabolism, increased visceral fat and decreased fat-free mass and cardiovascular fitness in healthy adults. Perhaps more troublingly, incorporating exercising back into your routine after a period of even four days of inactivity could not counteract all the negative effects.
The results are even more troubling for older people. A 2018 study from McMaster University showed that reducing daily steps to fewer than 1,500 — similar to the activity level of people who are housebound during this pandemic — for just two weeks can reduce an older person’s insulin sensitivity by as much as one-third. The same period of inactivity also led to individuals over age 65 losing as much as four percent of their leg muscle. Even when the research subjects returned to their normal daily routines, they did not regain their lost muscle.
At a more extreme level, Jay Polsgrove, associate professor and coordinator of the Exercise Science Program at Husson University, said that scientists have seen similar impacts when looking at the impacts of extended periods of bed rest.
“You’re advancing the aging process,” Polsgrove said. “Everything that happens with aging — increased blood pressure, increased body weight, decreased bone density [and] muscle volume — all of those things are happening at a much faster rate. It’s really hard to recover from that. The same thing is happening at home. You’re not in bed rest per se but you’re pretty much just sitting there in a small room, not being as active.”
Younger people also experience negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle. A 2020 study from the University of Southern California found that short-term changes in physical activity and sedentary behavior in reaction to COVID-19 may become permanently entrenched, leading to increased risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in children.
Some scientists even worry that the sedentary lifestyle of the pandemic could impact fertility. Sedentary behaviour has been associated with increased leptin, which can decrease fertility and pregnancy rates. A 2016 study from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health showed that 90 minutes or more of aerobic physical activity per week resulted in a higher likelihood of live birth in women undergoing fertility treatment compared to inactive women.
What you can do about it
Incorporating physical activity back into your life is essential to combatting the impacts of the sedentary COVID-19 lifestyle.
Graves recommended 30 minutes of moderately vigorous physical activity every day of the week.
“If you are out for a walk for the purposes of improving your health you’re going to want to walk at a vigorous pace. The rule of thumb is if you’re out walking and you’re breathing heavy but you can still carry on a conversation, that’s probably the right level of intensity,” Graves said.
At the bare minimum, Polsgrove said that even 10 to 15 minutes two times per week is enough to maintain your body’s fitness if you are “just trying not to go into decline.”
“You won’t feel like you’re getting lots of exercise in but at that point you’re just trying to maintain things a bit,” Polsgrove said.
Finding a way to get exercise outdoors is also good for your mental health.
“The recommendation I would make is don’t hesitate to go out and exercise just because it’s getting a little chilly,” Graves said. “Just prepare for it. Dress for the weather. If you’re someone with a busy schedule make sure you plan for it because the days are getting shorter. The opportunity to get outdoors in the daylight and exercise is reduced, but there are still things you can do and a lot of nice facilities in Maine to participate in outdoor recreation in the wintertime.”
Polsgrove noted that working out with a mask can present a challenge for some people.
“There’s a whole other issue with wearing something on your face doing cardiovascular activity,” Polsgrove said. “I personally can’t do it [because] it feels like I’m suffocating. Not only are you restricting the ability to pull the air in and out, you’re breathing in your own air a lot more and you’re not going to get the same training effect.”
There are plenty of things you can do from the comfort of your home as well. Polsgrove recommended setting up a designated exercise space in your house, or making a ritual of setting up the space before you start your daily regimen. Small goals can also help, he said, as can working out with a partner.
Polsgrove and Graves both also recommended seeking out new kinds of workouts on YouTube and other online platforms to keep things interesting.
“Now might be a good time to start a yoga routine or tai chi or pilates something like that, especially if it gets a little too chilly and you’re a little adverse to going out in the cold,” Graves said. “There are a lot of things you can do in the comfort of your own home that are very healthy.”