Shelter-in-place orders and social distancing have resulted in new challenges for maintaining fitness. As much as 47 percent of women and 55 percent of men have reported quarantine weight gain (1) and 55 percent of Americans claim that the lockdown has affected their mental health (2). Access to gyms, parks and pools has been restricted, and social distancing limits the number of team sports and group exercise that can be done. It is important to commit to a plan of action to maintain your physical and mental well-being during this time.
It is not so much that the pandemic has made us more sedentary — as a nation, we were already sitting behind our desks or behind the wheel for most of the day. Total sitting time from 2007 to 2016 increased from 7.0 to 8.2 hours per day among adolescents and from 5.5 to 6.5 hours per day among adults (3).
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) almost 80 percent of adult Americans do not get the recommended 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 1.25 hours of vigorous exercise each week (4). After work, instead of going to the gym, we tend to sit down to eat dinner and watch TV. During the pandemic, the average American is still fairly sedentary, but we’re doing even more eating, sitting and watching TV now instead of sitting at work. Such a sedentary lifestyle can decrease our life expectancy by as much as two years (5).
To make matters worse, the CDC says that being overweight or obese may increase the risk for severe illness, including COVID-19 (6). It is even more important than ever to move.
Moving the body requires the muscles to work, and this work is measured by a unit of energy (calorie). The primary type of calorie needed by the muscles is glucose (i.e. sugar), which comes from the carbohydrates in food. Once glucose enters the body, oxygen becomes the primary catalyst for converting that glucose into energy. This is a major part of the metabolic process that produces energy to maintain life.
When you are sedentary and there is little demand for energy, the body will store valuable glucose as fat. Eating additional foods with carbohydrates while there is already a high amount of glucose in the blood will lead to rapid fat storage, weight gain and even diabetes. So, it is important to be active to burn up the glucose in the blood before it gets stored as fat. How quickly and efficiently the calories are burned will depend on the intensity and duration of the activity.
Walking is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to prevent weight gain. It is estimated that walking uses 200 muscles to take just one step. Depending on weight, height, speed and terrain, a typical person burns about 0.04 calories per step or about 40 calories per 1,000 steps. Walking 10,000 steps, or about five miles in a day, engages the muscles two million times!
The more you walk and the faster you walk, the more calories will be used burning glucose in metabolic processes. Ultimately, less glucose will be stored as fat. This is how walking helps to prevent weight gain.
Walking is also good for keeping your brain healthy and young. As much as 20 percent of the increased blood circulation will be used by the brain and exercise has been shown to increase new connections between brain cells and brain function (7). Studies have also shown that exercise improves mental health (8), as it can help fight depression (9) and anxiety (10).
When it comes to starting any new exercise routine, it is important to set a goal, create an achievable plan and track success. This may require some extra work to maintain effective social distancing. Here are some strategies for walking and social distancing.
The fresh air and changing environment can stimulate both brain and cardiovascular activity. Exercise produces endorphins and sunshine increases serotonin, a hormone that affects your mood. If you cannot get to a park or trail, you can walk around your house and yard. Walking alone will pose a low risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
If you cannot get to a gym, or there is nowhere to walk outside your home, you can always walk inside your home. You can even march in place while watching tv. Marching in place with “high knees” can increase the calorie burn. Exercising at home is a time saver!
There are all kinds of pedometers, digital health devices and phone apps that will count your steps, measure your time, pace, and distance, and even calorie burn. These technologies are the easiest way to stay motivated. Set a daily and a weekly goal and compete with your family and friends. To meet the CDC’s daily exercise recommendations, you need to walk for 25 minutes at a moderate pace or 10 minutes at a vigorous pace with weights.
One of the biggest factors in the success of behavior change is convenience. When starting a new exercise program, keep it simple. If you do not have a large block of time available, use the time you do have before starting some other task. Try doing ten minutes before you start your day or before taking a shower. You can also do five or ten minutes before eating lunch or dinner. If you are sitting at a desk, standing up and marching in place for five minutes every hour or two can be just as effective or more effective than a single 30-minute session.
Whether you are walking outdoors or indoors, you can increase your calories burned walking by holding hand weights. You can increase the calories burned walking as much as 20 percent by swinging your arms to shoulder height for 20 to 30 minutes with light weights. A weighted vest equivalent to 10 to 15 percent of your body weight is also a good option so long as you maintain good posture.
The more intensity, the more calories you burn. If you burn through all the glucose in your blood, your body will then start burning stored fat. For most people, running in place at maximum intensity for one minute will burn all the available glucose in the blood. Continuing to run in place at maximum intensity for an additional three minutes will burn as much fat as walking at a leisurely pace for 45 minutes.
Every adult is responsible for their health and wellness and we all know we need to exercise every day, even if we are stuck in the house. Do not wait for motivation. Make the commitment. If you are going to watch a lot of television, watch it while marching in place.
Many studies show that walking groups have wide-ranging benefits from reductions in blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol, and increases in lung function (VO2max) (11). So long as you do obey local ordinances, wear a mask and maintain social distancing, group walks can boost both physical and mental health. Many studies show that walking groups have wide-ranging benefits from reductions in blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol and increases in lung function (VO2max).
Make walking a planned group activity and practice social distancing by scheduling regular virtual group walks using video apps on your phone or computer. With today’s technology, there’s no reason anyone needs to walk alone. Combining social activity with walking doubles the health benefit.
Sheltering at home does not mean that you can not get the recommended amount of daily exercise. Whether you can go outdoors, or you must stay inside, the minimal amount of movement can be achieved by walking. You can prevent weight gain and boost your mental health by walking and practicing social distancing.
Siphiwe Baleka - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice