Declines in Physical Activity During COVID-19 Highlight Need for Exercise

Why movement is important while quarantined and how to get back on track.

*This blog was co-written by Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP and guest author, Dr. Darian Parker, PhD, NSCA-CPT*

Source: Wokandapix, Pixabay

As we socially distance to stop the spread of COVID-19, most Americans are getting far less exercise than usual. In a nationwide initiative to track the attitudes, behaviors, and experiences of Americans during this pandemic using a fitness app, Evidation Health has collected data from more than 185,000 people from all 50 states. Overall, physical activity has declined an average of 48% from March 1 to April 6, 2020. More specifically, all states show drops in movement greater than 30%, with 10 states and the District of Colombia showing declines greater than 50% (including California, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas).

In addition to declines in physical activity, most of us are feeling increasingly stressed. Reports by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2020) and Center for Disease Control (CDC, 2020) highlight that fear, anxiety, and uncertainty about the disease itself is co-occurring with increasingly difficult economic and social realities that contribute to higher stress levels. For example, in the Evidation Health study, 20% of participants reported being worried or very worried about maintaining their health through the pandemic and 42% are worried about going to the doctor’s office or hospital for necessary medical care not related to coronavirus symptoms (Evidation Health, downloaded April 25, 2020). In fact, the need for interventions that ameliorate anxiety and other mental health challenges experienced by people under quarantine are shifting psychological service delivery to online and digital formats at very high rates (World Economic Forum, 2020).

The truth is there are many psychological and biological reasons exercise is essential to health, particularly during this coronavirus pandemic. First, obesity is a major public health issue in the United States and around the world associated with a number of physical diseases and medical complications. Preliminary research suggests that high body weight may be related to the need for hospitalization for people diagnosed with COVID-19. For example, a recent study of 4,103 COVID-19 patients in New York found that body mass index (BMI: an estimate of obesity status) was a strong predictor of hospitalization. In other words, those who had higher BMI’s were more likely to need to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 symptoms (Petrelli, et al., 2020). Second, exercise is highly important to physical and emotional health. Exercise contributes to an increase in neutrophils and natural killer cells which provide protection against viruses. Furthermore, recent research (Neiman, et. al, 2019) indicates that there is an inverse relationship between moderate exercise training and illness. Additionally, a recent review study by Dr. Zhen Yan of the University of Virginia School of Medicine found that regular exercise may reduce the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome—an issue that affects many people with COVID-19. Finally, research indicates that exercise not only provides short term immune system benefits, but also decreases long term changes to the immune system that can therefore reduce the risk of infection (Turner and Bath, 2020). In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may last for months and years, developing a strong immune system may be protective in fighting the illness and its complications over time.

5 Tips for Increasing Physical Activity Amidst the Quarantine

If you find that you are moving less and are becoming concerned for your health or noticing that you are gaining undesired weight (perhaps out of stress eating), now is the time to change. Here are five tips to increasing your exercise over the coming months.

1) Make time to move each day. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children, adolescents, and adults should move daily. To achieve the best health benefits, adults should do at least 2.5 – 5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week, ideally with some muscle strengthening activities. So, even if you need to carve out a little corner of your bedroom to do it, schedule exercise time for yourself and your family every day. You can get creative—from stretching to jumping jacks to a dance party with canned foods used as weights. Any movement helps.

2) Challenge thinking that thwarts progress. It is very likely that your routine and options for exercise are very different than they were a couple of months ago. You can’t go to your favorite gym class or even go for a walk outside depending on where you live. You may be quarantining with your entire family, perhaps trying to work, lead distance-learning lessons, cook, clean, and exist in close quarters with no real privacy or space. There are many unwelcome realities of this pandemic that make getting physical activity more challenging than usual.  Consequently, it is very easy to tell yourself that it is impossible to exercise right now. Don’t let yourself indulge in those thoughts. When you notice you are thwarting your movement by telling yourself that it is too hard, you don’t have time, you don’t have any way to get exercise, pause. Take a deep breath and choose to think in ways that promote physical and emotional health.

3) Get social support to encourage physical activity. Many of us are missing our community connections and typical interpersonal interactions. So why not combine the two? Getting exercise while connecting with those around you benefits everyone because it makes you more accountable for getting some exercise, keeps you socially connected, and probably makes it more fun. Try calling a loved-one while you walk, getting on Facetime and doing a workout with a friend, or doing daily text check-in’s to encourage those around you to get some exercise.

4) Increase unstructured physical activity. Increasing physical movement doesn’t mean you have to do “an exercise workout.” Instead, exercise can be very unstructured and still benefit our bodies. For example, doing yard work, chores, walking up and down stairs, and scrubbing the floors can all provide exercise while also improving your living space. So, why not grab a mop and get a bicep workout in the process!

5) Seek out structured virtual exercise options. For those of us who miss the burn of a more intense workout, websites such as Thumbtack and Bark offer certified fitness professionals for live virtual training. Even your local gym may now be offering online fitness classes to you. If you want something more intense, sign up!

The Naked Truth is This:

As we attempt to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are moving less and feeling stressed, which can lead to unwanted weight gain and decreases in overall health. If you notice that you are getting less physical activity, make time to move each day, get social support around exercise activities, and don’t let negative thinking keep you from your goals. Even as the world begins to lessen restrictions around social distancing, we may need to think outside the box to get adequate physical activity for months and years to come.

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, PhD ABPP


Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP 
Board Certified Clinical Psychologist
Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Former)
Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Nevada, School of Medicine

Darian Parker, PhD, NSCA-CPT
Co-Owner Epic Leisure Management
Owner Parker’s Personal Training
Host of Dr. D’s Social Network Podcast

Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

Exposed to a diversity of cultures and lifestyles from an early age, Dr. Cortney was intrigued by the ways cultural and environmental conditions affected the psychological well-being of individuals, groups, and even whole societies.


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