How Daily Exercise Became the Last Great Indulgence

Observations from a reluctant exerciser, in a pandemic

I have always been a sporadic exerciser. And, yes, that’s euphemistic. My periods of regular exercise historically come in fits and starts, then disappear as quickly as they arrive — replaced with dark chocolate and binge-watching.

In fact, years ago, I pitched and was hired to write a “reluctant exerciser” column for a popular women’s magazine, which wound up being a bit more reluctant than the editors had hoped. Sure enough, the stories quickly became about what lipgloss and cute headbands to wear while hiking, instead of about climbing mountains.

Most of the times when I’ve successfully maintained an exercise habit, it was at home: “Buns of Steel” (on VHS) in college, Tae Bo videos in my early twenties, runs around my residential Los Angeles neighborhood in my later twenties. There was a period of meeting my mother every Sunday at a local yoga studio, but that ritual also included the lure of brunch.

According to studies and anecdotal evidence, how we all approach movement has shifted dramatically since Covid-19 arrived.

Once I moved back to New York from L.A., naturally, I started walking quite a bit. And, when motivated, there were Core Fusion and yoga DVDs to turn to. The one exception was when — after a miscarriage and right before a book tour — I decided that I refused to be both sad and out of shape so I managed to haul myself to regular barre classes with an impossibly energetic teacher who told mercifully distracting stories during the hardest parts.

But, for a long stretch after having my second child, exercise became something I aspired to but rarely enacted. Who had time or energy? Between getting dressed, walking to a studio, taking a class and, finally, walking home, I would sacrifice three hours of my already truncated workday.

Then the pandemic struck. And everything about all of our schedules changed. According to multiple studies, how we all approach movement has shifted dramatically since Covid-19 arrived. A University College of London study that followed adult exercise habits before, during, and after shutdowns using smartphone tracking found that initially, movement declined with the arrival of the coronavirus. But, once restrictions eased, people over 65 actually increased their physical activity to above pre-pandemic levels. (People under 40 showed the greatest decline in movement.)

This tracks anecdotally: In parts of the United States, regular walks — one of the only viable pandemic activities — became so ubiquitous that they inspired collective exasperation like Twitter user @ben_awareness’ quip: “Time to go take a stupid little f*cking afternoon stroll” (which went viral and earned over 166,000 likes).

According to an online survey by RunRepeat, culled from 12,913 people in 139 countries from March 24 to March 30 last year, people who already worked out a little showed the greatest increase in exercise activity. Those who normally exercised one to two times a week increased their activity by 88% on average (suggesting, perhaps, that their exercise had been limited by time constraints). Only people who previously exercised more than four times a week showed a decrease of 14%. In December 2020, Strava, a social platform for athletes, released its data report, which showed 1.1 billion logged actions over the previous 12 months, a 33% increase over the year before.

So, while people may have been getting fewer steps, a portion of the population had turned to something else: at-home workouts. According to market research firm NPD Group, sales of fitness equipment rose 130% by May 2020. (That’s not news to anyone who tried to order a yoga mat or free weights during that time and discovered a shortage to rival toilet paper.) Peloton’s first-quarter sales tripled for its exercise bikes, as well.

Of course, online workouts had always been an option, but now people were home to do them. As Shannon Fable, a certified coach/instructor and onetime chair of the ACE (American Council on Exercise) board of directors, notes, home workouts mitigate obstacles like commute time, parking, childcare, and performance anxiety. Plus, suddenly, sought-after teachers were offering virtual options — on YouTube or via Zoom. “So many talented fitness professionals showed up online,” she says, “and, because they were creating plans based on body weight or items you may have around the house, a new group of exercisers was born!”

For me, as for many others, suddenly exercise became both one of the only activities available and also one of the only justifiable escapes for “me time.” As a mother of young children, splitting impossible childcare responsibilities with another working parent, I could express the need for a run or yoga session without anyone balking. Exercise became not only the antidote to emotional eating, and a way to perhaps boost immunity against a threatening virus, but also one of the only acts of self-care that I could muster up as my normal outlets (a haircut, pedicure, acupuncture, time with friends, any break to be alone) had been rendered obsolete.

If I’m honest, I probably was poised to get back into exercise, perhaps like many of those one-to-two-day-a-week exercisers. Just before the pandemic began, a longtime friend who happens to be a wellness coach for frayed mothers invited me to join a six-week reset program.

This felt like a huge extravagance, despite the reasonable price tag — the idea of taking the time, once a week, to travel to another neighborhood and spend two hours exercising, learning about nutrition, and sharing our various challenges. But it turned out to be so nourishing on every level. One week, after being urged to incorporate more fruit into our diets, I realized that I had been unconsciously saving “the good fruit” for my husband and kids. I shared this and suddenly every mother in the room was nodding her head in recognition. (Now, I want to write a book for women called Eat the Fruit.)

For me, as for many others, suddenly exercise became both one of the only activities available and also one of the only justifiable escapes for “me time.”

By the time that program ended, Covid was arriving and we were all scared. My trip to and from the sixth class was one of the last subway rides I would take for a year and counting. Luckily, weeks later, Katia Herman (the instructor) began offering virtual classes, twice a week from the porch where she’d been stranded — with her husband and four boys — in Florida. The workouts were (and are) hard, but doing them felt like a positive act, even in those first weeks as New York sank into terrifying coronavirus oblivion.

From the onset and even now, after the exercise and breathing practice ends, Katia invites everyone who has time to unmute and chat. “What was great about the Zoom workouts was that suddenly people were able to take my class who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t,” she says. “At one point, I had women in Israel, Italy, Florida, and many scattered on the East Coast and around New York City taking class together. In a time when our worlds have shrunk to the size of our living rooms, it is amazing to feel connected. This amazing sense of community has been born from this group of women who have been pretty consistent in exercising biweekly together for the past 11 months.”

This kind of bonding has become a norm for many groups of women. “I started because I was so unsettled and isolated,” recalls Mary Evans, a Brooklyn-based interior designer who takes Zoom classes led by her sister in Massachusetts four days a week. “I’m connected to the women in the class and I’m truly in amazing shape for 65! I don’t like exercising, but I like this.”

After my sister-in-law sent me a link, I began interspersing Katia’s live classes with short 20-minute HIIT/LIIT videos from the YouTube channel MadFit. I learned the beauty of the short workout, the way you could feel like you gave yourself something without sacrificing. I could exercise during my husband’s remote schooling shift and still have time left over to work. At that point, my family and I had absconded to my in-laws’ house in Maryland, so I was lucky enough to have other options, as well. I could go for a run and see trees in bloom, squirrels playing, the Chesapeake Bay stretching beyond. I memorized every inch of that short dirt road. Listening to music fueled me, but so did the release of excess energy.

Staying consistent with the workouts was easier because our daily schedule didn’t change much. As with much of life in a pandemic, the silver lining is a kind of (sometimes mind-numbing) simplicity. Although personal trainers associated with gyms have struggled, others have found this increased consistency play out too.

“My business was previously insanely hectic and unpredictable,” says Travis Hawkins, owner of Hawkins Fitness & Performance Training in New York, who was plagued by his clients’ changing schedules thanks to factors from business travel to Fashion Week. “My schedule was never the same week to week. About 30% of my business was regulars who had a time slot. The rest was based on who was in town.” He references a kind of “fitness roller coaster” thrown off by hectic deadlines, holiday partying, and more. During Covid, that has all leveled off. “My schedule has become very regular — 90% of my clients have regular weekly times. They have all seen dramatic results — surprise! Consistency works!” Many have also upped their number of sessions from one to two times a week.

Within the consistency, I did add different classes here or there. I took some live barre classes and was introduced to Yoga With Adriene. I had been struggling to find a good yoga practice to balance the intensity and cardio without luck, so this felt like a true gift. Led by Austin-based yogi and actress Adriene Mishler (and her omnipresent dog, Benji), Yoga With Adriene embodies exactly what has appealed about exercise during this pandemic — with an impetus both physical and emotional. Mishler brings an upbeat, natural energy and a relaxed attitude. Her sessions feel like the epitome of a judgment-free zone, a true break from the grueling energy of this year of pandemic and unrest, a moment of calm.

According to Michelle Keffer, YWA’s director of operations, the yogi’s YouTube channel has gained over 3 million subscribers since March 2020 (now at 9.64 million total). “People are searching for virtual options, but our channel also provides a sense of community when so many are spending time alone,” Keffer says, noting that requests have also shifted. “In addition to requests for yoga that helps with physical pain, we are seeing more requests for yoga that helps with mental and emotional struggles, i.e. loneliness, anxiety, stress.”

In the Covid era, some days are undoubtedly tougher than others. Sometimes it’s clear why — sometimes, not so much. Now, more than a year in, there are mornings when getting up to do it all over again seems nearly impossible, even as you remind yourself to buck up and be grateful. But what gym teachers and coaches and doctors have lectured us about our entire lives proves shockingly true: Exercise adjusts your mood. Maybe it’s the endorphins, maybe it’s the sense that you’ve done something good for yourself, maybe it’s the community or the excuse for alone time. Either way, it’s not that I necessarily have wanted to move my body every day; it’s that I’ve felt as if my days depend on it.

In most ways, the pandemic has afforded me less time, but, for me as for many of us, it has offered more time for this.

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