The evolution of physical activity; forming new exercise habits in lockdown

Date: 28/05/2020 Written by: Jo 7 minutes to read.
Changing the way we exercise

Lockdown life has not been an easy ride for many, and we are expecting social distancing to continue for several months. Despite the negatives that have been dominating the news of late, I find myself looking with intrigue at some of the positive, if not potentially life-shaping, effects the coronavirus pandemic is having on us - including exercise adoption.

Undoubtedly, many things have had to change in our day to day lives to comply with the lockdown measures that are necessary to control the spread of coronavirus; including our exercise habits. The restrictions have caused a change in the way we relate to exercise, its importance in our routines and even how we exercise.

As someone who has always found exercise adoption fascinating, I appreciate that people may not necessarily share the same excitement towards trying new activities or adopting new habits. But with the increased emphasis within the government messaging on the importance of maintaining good exercise habits, 63% of adults in England now think that physical activity habits are more important than ever and 55% agree that the government guidance has encouraged them to exercise. But how are people starting to consume physical activity differently – and will this increase or adaptation of behaviour be sustained once lockdown measures are gradually lifted?

In a recent Sport England survey, there have been reports of a massive disruption to physical activity habits – and not all are in the right direction. 33% of adults in England said they have done more exercise since lockdown, but 37% actually reported doing less. Having said this, we cannot discount the fact that there are other competing factors which need to be considered; some adults have been ‘cocooned’ at home with no access to outdoor space, and some may be unable to afford additional equipment to support their exercise habits or preferences. Some may also lack the motivation which usually drives their exercise habits – companionship at exercise classes, support from personal trainers, or using facilities required for exercise, such as swimming pools, training centres etc. 63% of people reported they were ‘missing’ the exercise they were able to do before lockdown.

Exercise habits – what are people doing now?

Being forced to change the way we do exercise has made way for an interesting observation opportunity. Focussing on the new exercise habits of people since lockdown, it’s interesting to find out; what are people actually doing?

Walking

The first is one I have noticed even just locally; walking. Sport England research confirmed that 59% of adults in England had participated in some level of walking in the previous week – 37% of these reported that is more than they would usually have done, and 49% of these were people walking on their own.

From our previous project on healthy placemaking, we know the importance of having the right environment for promoting good habit adoption; having the necessary green spaces is crucial to the potential for people to go for walks and get out into the parks, which could facilitate this habit more beyond the lift of lockdown measures.

Cycling and Running

The differences in cycling and running habits are not as significant as walking habits in terms of the numbers of people who had reported doing so in the previous week, with only 9% of people saying they had cycled in the past week, and 19% of people who had been running or jogging in the past week. The crucial number in this instance is actually the increase in these activities. 46% of adults in England suggested they had started doing more cycling than usual and 51% suggested they are doing more running than usual, which is significant in terms of increased exercise amounts.

Online physical activity

Arguably, one of the most interesting, if not predictable, outcomes to come from the lockdown is the upsurge in consumption of online content for exercise. With the likes of Joe Wicks, Bear Grylls, and even Mr Motivator streaming free online content to raise pulses and join from your own home, it is by far one of the biggest changes to exercise adoption and a potential game-changer in the future of exercise behaviour. With 24.6% of people surveyed in England reporting to have completed an online exercise activity in the previous week, a staggering 70% of people reported that this is more activity than they would normally have accessed online. It is also the most significant change in exercise habits for those with children; 29% of those doing online fitness classes did so as a family.

And why not? The world of online fitness offers so much variety - from yoga to dancing to HIIT training – and it’s completely free and accessible to everyone with an internet connection. It’s also easy to follow and removes the responsibility of planning your exercise with a ready-made routine delivered to you directly.

Home workouts

In a similar way to online workouts, people have been compelled to purchase training equipment so that they can continue to complete their regular exercise routines at home, or try something new and exciting (I’ve heard stories of hula hoops, skipping ropes, and even balance boards!). Personal trainers have been able to adapt their services to offer exercise circuits which cater to people using the equipment they have at home. With the purchase of at-home exercise equipment, will people still feel the need to visit the gym as regularly?

Habit forming – how long will it continue?

Whilst some of the innovations in exercise adoption are undoubtedly good to see and will hopefully contribute to some positive change after lockdown, I find myself playing devil’s advocate when it comes to the sustainability of the new exercise routines. Behavioural psychology and research into human habit tells us something; habit-forming is largely influenced by our surroundings and environment. The lockdown restrictions have been one of the single biggest changes to our established routines and surroundings that we have ever seen – when you take away the regularity of usual social cues and triggers for performing a certain behaviour, that behaviour doesn’t automatically continue.

We find ourselves suddenly in this new environment, which doesn’t necessarily facilitate our usual habits – going to the gym on our way home from the office, taking the kids to their usual judo classes, or joining our friends for a timetabled body combat class.

In the absence of our usual exercise cues, we have been drawn to these new ways to exercise, or to increase something we would be doing on a more irregular basis, such as walking and jogging. But will these continue when we eventually have the option to return to our former routines? Or can we embed these new habits successfully into our normal routine?

There are a few factors which may play a part. Firstly, the time factor. Working from home or being unable to work, has presented extra time to exercise which may not have been as readily available before. Once you start to re-introduce all of the day-to-day obligations or social engagements which usually occupy our time, exercise can sometimes take a back seat. We may also consider importance and priority for exercise, and although people have adopted a physical activity to support mental wellbeing, to remain healthy in light of the virus, or simply to get out of the house, these reasons may not be as imperative after the return to normality, therefore the new habits formed begin to recede.

There is also a question mark over how exercise establishments will return to ‘normality’, and how people will respond to using facilities with others; people may experience anxieties about being around others and there may be restrictions on the amount of people able to exercise around each other at any one time. Personal trainers could also be impacted; with so many accessing online content, this could inevitably give way to a new ‘DIY’ exercise culture. 

However, the increased government emphasis shone a huge light on the importance of exercise, and this may have the potential to continue once we return to a form of ‘normal life’. Now that people have been forced to embrace a different kind of exercise, it may have removed some of the barriers or deterrents to exercise that were stopping people from doing regular activity before. For example, discovering easily accessible online classes, which can also be largely free of charge, offers a cheaper alternative to a paid gym membership, and these options may fit more easily into their lives than before.

The evolution of our exercise habits has the potential to change life for the better for some, but this will depend on each individual’s tendency to rank the importance of exercise compared to our ‘usual’ activities that we haven’t been able to do whilst in lockdown.

If we find our regular routines and stressors return exactly as before, will our new exercise habits be able to compete for our time? And will we still want to exercise at home once we have the opportunity to go out and about again?

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