An Exercise in Pandemic Activity: Some Do, Some Don’t

CORONAVIRUS

By Sydney Runkle 

Flashback to almost one year ago — April 2020. Gym doors were locked, soccer teams had their seasons halted and yoga classes were transferred online. That 5K you were signed up for? Cancelled. Time at the pool with your kids? Not so fast. Your weekly cycling class? Woah there, pump the brakes.

These changes were all made with good intentions. Of course, we should modify our routines to practice social distancing, erring on the side of safety, doing our part to slow the spread of the pandemic. However, these changes led to new exercise patterns.

For some, the pandemic has provided additional time at home which has been used for new physical activity. For others, the pandemic has made exercising more difficult and complicated.  

Julia Perkins, a senior at UNC, has missed out on many of her usual extracurriculars. “I was always involved with one or more club sport groups on campus, but at the start of the pandemic, these activities were cancelled,” she said. 

Gyms closed. “We had a gym membership that we used on and off in 2019 and into early 2020, which stopped entirely when on-campus school stopped with COVID,” explained Garrison Reid, a teacher at Chapel Hill High.

High school sports were halted. Kate Berreth, a Chapel Hill High senior and member of two varsity sports teams, has missed out on many of her swimming and fencing practices. “While I have more time to work out than I did before [the pandemic],” she said, “the majority of my normal school sports practices have been cancelled due to the virus.”

Group exercise classes were put on hold. “Since the start of the pandemic, I have not attended my weekly Pilates session,” said Christina Holladay, a Chapel Hill resident and senior physical therapist at Duke. Instead, Holladay has taken to attending virtual Pilates classes at home. 

“I find that I walk more dogs more often and I work out at home for at least 30-60 minutes per day,” she added. Holladay has found a variety of ways to exercise from home, including running on a treadmill, hand weights, plyometric exercises and stretching. 

Her shift towards at-home exercise is echoed by many other local residents.

“I now do more running on my own and at-home workouts,” said Perkins. Cathy Charles, a senior at Chapel Hill High, started riding her mom’s peloton bike indoors to stay fit.

The trend towards at-home exercise is also reflected in the surging sales of home fitness equipment.

Matt Powell is the vice president for NPD, a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y. “As soon as the lockdowns took effect, the home-fitness business took off like a wildfire,” Powell said. The graphic below illustrates growth year over year for fitness equipment in various categories from March 2019 to March 2020.

This growth has been in part due to increases in sales of recreational equipment, notably products used by children. As a mother, Holladay has also been tasked with coming up with recess-like activities for her two elementary aged children who have been learning virtually. They play basketball and soccer, ride bikes, jump rope, do running and agility drills and play other sports. 

Christina Holladay’s kids do running drills in their neighborhood as a part of their daily exercise routine.

For Holladay’s kids, what once took place in the jungle gym at school now takes place right in the backyard. Holladay and many others have found that pandemic-era exercise “provides a rhythm to my day, as well as a way to de-stress during these uncertain times.” Holladay noted that her exercise patterns are also more consistent compared to those before the pandemic.

Susan Romaine, a Carrboro Town Council member, has also made a more regular habit of exercising. The day before Duke Regional Hospital opted to stop offering elective surgeries, Romaine was lucky enough to have her hip replaced following years of struggling with severe arthritis. Since recovering, she has enjoyed long walks around her neighborhood with her husband and friends.

“Before the pandemic, I was limited to swimming, but now I get my 10,000 steps a day,” Romaine said. She also has had the opportunity to explore local trails, greenways and hikes.

Though a more regular routine has been a byproduct of the pandemic for some, other residents have found that the pandemic has made keeping a regular routine more of a challenge. 

“When my sport is not in season, my exercise schedule becomes very sporadic,” said Meredith Wall, a senior and multi-sport athlete at Chapel Hill High. Wall still has found many ways to keep active. “In addition to running, I have done a lot more biking, worked on playing tennis and gone on outside walks with friends as a way to stay connected.”

For Marc Desormeau, a Carrboro resident and parent of three, “prior to the stay-at-home order, I was more disciplined in my workout routine. Since I had to leave for work by 7, I always completed my workout every morning. My workouts are more fluid and opportunistic these days.” 

Desormeau said that he has started participating in new forms of cycling. “Mountain biking is new, I never went before, and now it’s a regular part of my cycling exercise because I can ride trails at lunch in the daylight.” 

Desormeau’s increased outdoor exercise is a benefit of his newly acquired free time during the day — time he no longer spends commuting to work or transporting his kids to their various extracurricular activities.

Holladay’s kids, Charles, Wall and Desormeau haven’t been the only ones who have picked up the habit of cycling. The pandemic brought with it a striking surge in bicycle sales. Some have turned to cycling as an alternative method to public transportation, finding biking to be a lower risk option for their commutes. Others turned to biking as a source of socially distanced exercise. 

“During the early parts of quarantine, I rode my bike more, which I hadn’t done for so long,” Charles said. 

Noticing more bikes on the road recently? You’re not alone. The number of individuals cycling outdoors has greatly increased compared to pre-pandemic figures. Bike shops around the country and locally have found themselves buried under bike repair and purchase requests. 

The year-over-year statistics show the trend. In 2020, overall bike sales grew 75 percent in April and 63 percent in June compared to the prior year, according to The NPD group. The chart below shows the growth.

The bike industry seems to be one of the few that actually thrived during the first surges of the pandemic. Many bike shops were even required to remain open, deemed essential businesses. While toilet paper flew off shelves in grocery stores, bikes rolled off racks at The Bicycle Chain in Chapel Hill.

“Ever since March of last year, there has been a constant sell, sell, sell, fix, fix, fix for our store,” said Patrick Reinhartt, an employee at The Bicycle Chain. According to Reinhartt, sales for the store have been up approximately 150 percent from previous years.

Reinhartt admitted he struggles to give customers finite answers about when new bikes might be in stock because there has been an overwhelming backorder issue in the cycling industry. The Bicycle Chain has over $1 million worth of bike supplies on back order at the moment. Reinhardtt said he thinks sales will eventually flatten out, but the return to normalcy will take some time.

Movement towards normalcy has also been a slow process for high school athletics. School sports in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools weren’t allowed to begin official practices until November 2020, whereas many sports teams usually start working out in the summer. 

High school athletics have since resumed with necessary safety protocols in place. In swimming, for instance, the NCHSAA has released guidelines that mandate athletes to keep six feet of distance in the pool and on the pool deck. 

These regulations haven’t dissuaded Chapel Hill High swimmer and state qualifier Savannah Xu from continuing to pursue her sport. However, Xu says there have been significant changes in her training schedule since the pandemic. “With shorter practice times, we are training less than before, making every minute of practice more important,” she noted.

Xu highlighted some benefits of the changes: “I’m honestly glad that this new schedule provides me with more time to do school work and rest more,” she said. For many athletes, a reduced practice load or self-scheduled exercise routine has allowed more time for other activities.

Unfortunately, the changes haven’t all been practical. “It is very uncomfortable to put a mask on while you’re still wet,” Xu said. 

Xu at the NCHSAA state swim meet in 2021.

Swimming since the age of five, Xu is highly self-motivated and dedicated to her sport. Many others though have experienced decreases in their quantity of weekly exercise due to lack of motivation and struggles with mental health/well-being. “We have observed a massive shift towards … disengagement and diminished motivation across the student population,” said Ryan McGraw, a school counselor at Chapel Hill High.

Berreth said she knows the feeling. “While I have the time to work out by myself, I don’t feel like I have the motivation to work out every day.”  

Working out alone poses a significant challenge for those who can no longer participate in socially oriented exercise groups. “It’s hard to stay motivated working out in isolation,” said Perkins. “Unfortunately, I’m overall less active.” Where Perkins once used to bike commute to in-person classes, she now attends classes via virtual platforms, which removes the need for her to commute via bike.

Exercise before the pandemic was centered around social interaction and group activities for Perkins. Now, most of the exercise she engages in is “exercise for exercise’s sake.”

It’s similar for Reid. “Pace is no longer important to me,” he said. “I’m now just focused on the act of doing something/anything. I want to keep that excitement toward the exercise, and I think feeling like I’m disappointed in pace will reduce my exercise frequency further.”

For Reid, the pandemic outbreak coincided with the birth of his first child. The changes in his exercise habits, he acknowledged, can’t only be attributed to his role as a new parent or the pandemic. 

“There are days where the weather has prevented any exercise,” Reid said. There has been less time overall to exercise as well as an increased concern about exposure to disease. Reid and his family changed their regular workout route in order to avoid potentially crowded areas.

“Our old neighborhood was very close to the Bolin Creek greenway, which we used to walk frequently. Even though we were very close to the greenway, we walked the neighborhood streets to avoid the concern of people/COVID exposure,” Reid explained.

For some, the change to a more sedentary lifestyle has come with consequences. Since last March, numerous surveys and polls have shown a relationship between pandemic-induced changes in routine and weight gain.

In a survey of more than 1,000 WebMD users, almost 25 percent of men and 50 percent of women indicated that they had gained weight since the start of the pandemic. 

Ever heard of the “quarantine 19”? Similar to the infamous “freshman 15” associated with the first year of undergraduate study, many Americans have experienced weight gain as a consequence of quarantine.

Approximately 72 percent of those surveyed attributed their weight gain to lack of exercise, 70 percent acknowledged an uptick in stress eating and 21 percent said they had experienced a surge in alcohol consumption. The graphic below shows the percentage breakdown of weight gain by range.

While some exercise more and some less, due to the pandemic, one common sentiment seems to be a newfound appreciation for the outdoors. 

Reid walks with his son outdoors whenever he can get the chance. Wall plays tennis with friends to stay connected to her peer group. Desormeau uses outdoor exercise to safely socialize with friends. Charles cycles and walks more frequently, also taking advantage of outdoor socializing. Romaine has explored a variety of new trails. Berreth joins her friends for outdoor socials. Perkins cherishes warm weather for her runs. 

In a world where indoor social activities are no longer a feasible option for most, the opportunity to opt outside, whether for exercise or for leisure, is truly a treasured pleasure.

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