How to keep exercising during social isolation

20 Mar 2020

How can we all stay fit and active if we're self-isolating or staying indoors more because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak?

In this blog post, experts in the University's Department of Sport, Exercise and Health, share invaluable tips about how we can work out at home - and even get involved in some social exercise.

Authors are: Keith D Parry, Helen Ryan-Stewart, Jo Batey, John Batten and Chris Whittle.

With cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) rising, government guidelines are calling for people to stay indoors as much as possible and to engage in 'social distancing'.

At the same time, these guidelines stress the importance of staying mentally and physically active to remain as healthy as possible. However, it may seem hard to engage in physical activity while complying with social distancing guidelines. In this post, we explore ways for people to stay active at home.

Working out from home
The NHS indicates that adults should take part in some physical activity every day. Yet there is a growing acknowledgement that more will need to be done to help people maintain their physical activity levels. For example, John O'Brien MBE has called for TV channels to introduce health and exercise programmes to keep the nation active. The well-known mindfulness app Headspace has made a series of meditations free in response to concerns over mental health posed as a result of coronavirus.

In the face of non-essential travel and working-from-home, many will find it difficult to keep up exercise regimens, particularly if public exercising facilities such as gyms close. But there is no reason why people can't continue to meet physical activity guidelines even from the comfort of their own home.

The guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week can be made up of short (around 10 minute) bouts carried out at different points in the day and there are so many household activities - mowing the lawn, painting walls and ceilings, vacuuming - that will count towards the low-moderate end of the physical activity guidelines.

And, for those with a sense of humour, Neil Pearson fitness has created a workout video of exercises that can be completed with hoarded toilet roll.

Although the government suggests that people can go for a walk - and presumably a run - outdoors they advise that people "stay more than two metres from others". It points towards the NHS website for a number of home exercises, but these are only designed for those who are "not very active but want to improve" their health. These activities are far from equivalent replacements for more vigorous physical activity.

In order to improve fitness, we have to work our body harder than regular movement activities, for example, we need to walk at a brisk pace or move faster than we would normally. To improve aspects of cardiovascular fitness, this means raising heart rate and starting to breathe more heavily.

If you feel like doing something more intense, there are plenty of resources for ideas of keeping up your fitness from home. This Girl Can gives some example exercises to do with just furniture at home. Professional footballers have posted videos of themselves training by themselves at home, using their in-home treadmills or practicing high-intensity dance routines.

Where whole households are self-isolating, it may be an opportunity to stay active together. The NHS provides a series of workout videos for older people and there are also plenty of YouTube videos and channels that offer workouts for the whole family, including children, mums with babies, and those that may only have a small space to workout in.

Be creative with your exercising; resistance exercise includes anything that offers a resistance to normal movement patterns - this can include lifting items at home (stockpiled tins, filled bottles or children!), using resistance bands or even just performing exercises against body weight, for example, squats or press ups. These should be carried out in 2-4 sets per muscle group for 6-12 repetitions per set. Rest intervals of 2-3 minutes per set are suitable. Rest periods of around 48 hours are suitable to allow for appropriate recovery.

For those looking for a more vigorous cardiovascular workout, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may be a good option. There activities combine short (30-second) intense bouts of exercise with similarly short recovery periods. This training can be completed in a short period of time and with little or no equipment.

A number of online videos for such activities can be found on YouTube, such as this beginners' workout by the Body Coach TV. The workouts vary in intensity and have low-impact beginner versions all the way up to advanced. There are even a few designed specifically to be conducted in hotel rooms. Alternatively, Fitness Blender offers a series of free videos that can be tailored for different fitness levels, intensity and duration.

Social exercise during social distancing
However, while these exercise strategies may help people to stay active they are still unlikely to provide the same level of benefits available when exercising as part of a group or team. The new guidelines have in effect ruled out grassroots team sport and governing bodies, such as the Football Association, have postponed sport at all levels,

Group exercise has proved to enhance motivation and effort, and being part of a team has been identified as important for maintaining a positive self and social identity. Importantly, group exercise has been shown to decrease anxiety and adherence levels are consistently reported to be higher among group exercise programmes. One study found that 95 per cent of participants completed a weight loss programme when they undertook it as part of a group, compared to just 76 per cent who completed it alone.

In the current climate it is therefore going to be challenging to retain some of the benefits associated with being active as part of a group and to remain being active at all. But here's a few things you could try:

  • Find a virtual race - such as the Virtual Bath Half Marathon - and run the distance separately and then share your stories, times and photos via social media
  • Participate in a Strava Challenge and compete against thousands of others
  • Dig out your Wii Fit and challenge friends to a variety of physical activity games
  • Compete against a virtual community of cyclists and runners on a variety of virtual courses via Zwift
  • Take a live or on-demand online exercise or spin class from companies such as Peloton.

Although you may not be able to maintain your usual exercise/fitness programmes, if you're open to thinking creatively or trying new things there is no reason why your physical and mental health should suffer throughout the pandemic.

We would love to hear how you stay active during this period, share your stories with us in the comments box below.

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