Quarantine Fitness Will Change Workout Culture Forever

Even when the pandemic ends, the fitness industry will look very different — as will the ways people work out

As the coronavirus made its way across the world, Jade Wootton finally became a runner.

“I always wanted to be one,” she says. “I thought the ideology was cool, not just going out and getting fit, but also getting endorphins doing it. But I’m very slow, and that was really embarrassing for me.”

Four days into self-imposed quarantine, the 25-year-old says her embarrassment “evaporated,” outweighed by a desire to leave her Bushwick, Brooklyn apartment and to do something with her body that made her feel like she was — at least a little bit — in control. For weeks, Wootton ran every day, building a habit that became the keystone of a new daily routine.

“The first few days of the quarantine were so disorienting,” she says. Running every day helped. And then the routine changed. Again.

“The park I was running in closed, and that freaked me out,” Wootton says. “I find running with a mask on really difficult, and going outside started to feel increasingly frightening.”

Wootton’s now taken most of her workouts to Zoom, where her studio offers daily yoga classes, but she still goes for a long run twice a week.

“I just need some sort of release,” she says. “Just in general, I feel way less overwhelmed and crazy now. Running is something I never really got before; now I get it.”

While the collective quest for abs may have begun as a productive way to pass the time… it’s become, for many, the only manageable aspect of an incredibly precarious world.

Wootton’s not alone in her pursuits. In the face of sweeping stay-at-home mandates, a huge number of Americans seized an opportunity to finally kick-start a regular workout routine. Retailers reported sharp increases in sales of home gym equipment — like Peloton — and online marketplaces quickly sold out of hand weights and kettlebells. With gyms and fitness studio locations ordered closed, virtual workout classes cropped up en masse on social media and via video conferencing platforms, and search traffic for terms like “home workout” spiked substantially in March. Instagram fitness personalities began posting workouts from their home gyms, sometimes using household items like pots and pans or bottles of bleach in place of dumbbells.

But while the collective quest for abs may have begun as a productive way to pass the time, more than a month into a quarantine it’s become, for many, the only manageable aspect of an incredibly precarious world.

Chantae Reden is a travel and adventure journalist living in Fiji. When the travel industry abruptly ceased functioning, she says she lost a significant amount of work. But even more jarring were the changes to her lifestyle. She couldn’t surf or free-dive — activities she considers “a large part of [her] identity,” and was expected to stay home all day, every day, with a boyfriend who is accustomed to working in an office.

“I thought we’d argue a lot more, being home together,” Reden says. “We really weren’t sure how it’d be once we were both here all the time.”

Their saving grace has been a daily workout: Every day at 6 p.m., the pair take a high-intensity cardio class from the Nike Training Club app, and Reden says it’s both strengthened their bond and brought some routine to the day.

It’s also a way to work toward her surfing and free-diving goals, Reden says, despite, at least for the moment, not actually being able to do either of those things. “I’ve been able to strengthen my back, and work on things like arm and shoulder strength,” she says. “I’ve had more time than usual to work on these specific fitness goals,” and, she adds, making progress on them keeps those activities from life before the virus feel like they’re still in reach.

Survivalists and “preppers” consider physical fitness an important survival skill, and they’re not off the mark. The quarantine fitness trend may be more than a way to pass the time — a regular exercise regimen could aid the body’s natural defenses. During the Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1998, people who got at least a moderate amount of exercise had a reduced risk of death, according to a study published in the journal PLOS One. The same may ultimately prove true now, according to Tamara Hew-Butler, an associate professor of exercise and sports science at Wayne State University in Detroit. In a recently published article, Hew-Butler and her co-author wrote that “limited animal and human data cautiously suggest that exercise up to three days per week, two to three months prior, better prepares the immune system to fight a viral infection.”

However, Hew-Butler warns, trying to get too fit too fast could potentially have negative health effects. “You still want to be judicious, because the data shows that no exercise is bad for your health, but too much exercise is even worse,” she says. “You need to be conservative, especially at this time, because too much exercise taxes your immune system. Don’t work out for more than 45 minutes if you aren’t used to it. If you’re sore, take an extra day to recover.”

The quarantine fitness trend may be more than a way to pass the time. A regular exercise regimen could aid the body’s natural defenses.

Even the most conservative exercise regimen can have a considerable mental impact. “There’s a clear chemical response in the brain. It’s like free drugs,” Hew-Butler explains. “It just makes you feel better mentally.”

That’s been true for Wootton, who says her physical and mental endurance seem to be growing at the same rate, and getting fit feels like a way to prepare for an unpredictable future. “It gets you into a mindset where you’re pushing yourself to keep going, to see how long you can get through something,” she says. “I think right now that’s something a lot of us need, not only physically, but mentally.”

When quarantines went into effect, a number of gyms, from major chains to local health clubs, stepped in with short-term solutions. Planet Fitness began offering free 20-minute workout videos, no membership required, on its Facebook page, and Barry’s Bootcamp did the same via Instagram. Nike indefinitely waived the monthly fee for its training app, and actor Chris Hemsworth announced that his app, CentrFit, would be free for six weeks.

But those solutions can feel like stop-gap measures that are, from a business standpoint, rapidly becoming ineffectual. Gyms are still shuttered, and, in many cases, hemorrhaging money. There are many whose doors are unlikely to ever open again. And even if they do, it may be to a workout culture that’s been substantially — and permanently — changed.

Wootton’s not sure when she’ll feel safe entering a gym again, when right now just running on the sidewalk feels dangerous. But still, she says, “I’ve been paying my yoga membership. I want them to survive. But I don’t know what it’s going to be like. Maybe it’ll continue to be online classes, even after the quarantine lifts. I know some things will be very different. We used to just use the mats they had there in the studio; no way that’s ever going to be a thing again.”

That makes the future even more uncertain for the 400,000-some American fitness professionals who are presently out of work.

In mid-March, full-time yoga instructor and personal trainer Steven Kane was told classes at the New York City gym where he teaches would be canceled indefinitely. “I went into survival mode,” he says. “The gyms closed on Monday, and by Tuesday I had my first online class.”

Kane used the video-chat platform Zoom to host a yoga class, which drew nearly two dozen participants, then held small group mobility and strength training every night for the rest of the week. “By Friday I sent out an email that said, grimly, we’re probably not going to be back in the gym for quite a while,” Kane says. He established a weekly membership, and if he’s able to keep attendance in his Zoom-based classes up, he expects to make about as much as he was being paid by his corporate gym employer.

“It gets you into a mindset where you’re pushing yourself to keep going, to see how long you can get through something. I think right now that’s something a lot of us need.”

It’s been an adjustment, but Kane says he tries to keep his Zoom classes engaging for students. “What people tend to do with live online workouts is you just follow along with an instructor,” he says. “It’s a very Jane Fonda, pop in the VHS type thing. I don’t think that’s really useful.”

Kane tries to provide students the same kind of individual feedback they’d get in a physical gym setting. “It’s a little annoying because I’m always like, ‘tilt your camera to the left, take me over there with you, tilt me up,’” he says. “But I can still be like, ‘Greg, lift your hips; Dana, drop your shoulder.’”

At first, Wootton says her adjustment to Zoom yoga was bumpy. “Usually in a yoga class, the instructor will just come around and quietly adjust you,” she says. “In the studio no one knows who you are, but when they give you adjustments on the webcam they’re saying your name, and telling you what to change. It feels less anonymous and kind of strange.” As the pandemic wore on, though, and the inside of her apartment became more and more a safe haven, Wootton says her thoughts on virtual yoga have totally shifted. “Before, I wanted to escape the house, and now it’s, ‘how do I find happiness and exercise inside?’”

The good news, according to Kane, is that you really don’t need much. “Most of strength training is about bodyweight exercises,” he says. “If you can get two or even four kettlebells, you’re golden.”

The coming months are difficult to forecast: Gyms and studios may reopen, and the workout world could return to business as usual. But it’s increasingly difficult to believe anything will be returning to the way it was pre-pandemic. It’s more likely that the fitness industry will be forced to navigate a new reality. Or, as Kane puts it, “this is it: Let’s get used to it.”

“Some of the data predictions are that this will come in waves, and there’ll be periods of quarantine over years,” Hew-Butler says. “In that case, you’re really going to have to have developed some dependence on what you can do at home. You’ll have to have some degree of self-sufficiency.”

When the coronavirus outbreak subsides — whenever that may be — Kane says he hopes there will be a thriving culture around exercise.

“If after this pandemic the economy is shot, and people can’t afford gym memberships, they’ll need to be creative,” he says. “Maybe the online stuff will continue, and we’ll be able to find a way to deliver a lot of value without the physical interaction. Maybe it’ll work. Something will: You can’t end the fitness industry.”

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store