Let’s stay active when gyms are closed and sports are on pause

Early-morning exercisers get in a workout at a Montreal gym on Oct. 5, days before the city's gyms had to close again.

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Early-morning exercisers get in a workout at a Montreal gym on Oct. 5, days before the city’s gyms had to close again.

Here we go again. As the number of COVID-19 cases has risen back to critical levels across the country, gyms are seeing their capacities reduced or being closed altogether. Limits have been placed on team sports at the recreational and competitive level. And while not all provinces have put the brakes on sports and certain other types of physical activity, the risk of another coast-to-coast shutdown is high.

Back in March, when gyms closed for the first time, spring was right around the corner. Days were getting longer and the weather warmer, which made it easier to find ways to do a workout outdoors . This time around, it’s dark when we roll out of bed and dark again when we sit down to dinner, which means it’s less inviting at either end of the day to get in a workout.

With more obstacles in their way, Canadians are likely to go back to the more sedentary habits they adopted in the spring, when — according to data collected by ParticipACTION, the national organization whose mandate is to get Canadians moving — people were more likely to watch television or sit in front of a computer screen than exercise.

When it comes to the consequences of COVID-19, a lack of exercise may seem trivial, but for many people exercise isn’t just a boost to their physical health; it also improves their mental health — a theory that’s supported by a growing body of evidence. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Some people actively seek out exercise as a therapeutic option to improve mental health, be it at the suggestion of a medical professional or by virtue of the good feeling that often accompanies a good sweat. Others are so used to their exercise routine that they go into a funk when their workout schedule is disrupted. Then there are those who have very defined goals that are at risk of being abandoned without access to a training facility, which adds to their stress level.

Also worth mentioning is the loss of social connection, which can be felt by anyone who plays team sports or prefers to sweat in a group versus on their own. Beer-league hockey, soccer and basketball players, curlers, masters athletes, gym rats and others of all ages who play organized sports are at risk of being negatively affected emotionally and physically by the loss of their exercise routine.

Several studies have emerged looking at the mental health effects of the change in physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, most of which came to a similar conclusion: those who let their exercise routine lapse reported an increase in depressive symptoms, loneliness and stress compared to those who kept up their normal workout schedule. With this in mind, it’s clear we need to find ways to be active and stay connected when gyms close and organized sports are put on pause. Governments need to understand the value of maintaining access to some sports and recreational facilities in the event that gyms and team sports are deemed too risky, and need to encourage Canadians to keep moving during stressful times. The goal is to find the right balance between keeping sports and exercise enthusiasts safe and allowing access to enough resources to keep them active.

It’s not just governing bodies that need to take heed of the physical and mental health costs of disrupting the exercise routine of active Canadians. Coaches, sport league administrators and parents need to find creative ways to fill the void. Team or group exercise workouts designed for the home and delivered in real time online by a fitness professional — ideally at the same time as regular workouts or team practices — are a good idea. So are online strategy sessions or educational seminars on sport-specific conditioning, nutrition or innovative training programs given by experts. And how about virtual team dinners spent together yet apart, team or group physical activity challenges using exercise apps to track activity — with prizes for the most calories burned or minutes spent on the move — and workouts designed to facilitate two people training together while still maintaining physical distancing?

These types of activities will become even more important as autumn leads into winter and the numbers of COVID-19 cases rise and fall. Restrictions on group exercise and places where exercisers congregate are usually announced with only a few days notice, so the time is now for gyms, coaches, trainers and sports leagues to start brainstorming ideas to keep their communities physically active and socially connected.

The first shutdown of athletic facilities and programming took us by surprise. This time, let’s learn from the past and ensure the physical and mental health of active Canadians are well looked after in the months ahead.


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