Updated: Mar 30
In this post, I’ll reflect on how the last few years have changed our fitness landscape, talk about the benefits of outdoor sports, make a case for getting back into the swing of things and trying new activities, and give you some mental strategies for performing your best and staying active for good.
Entering year four of a global pandemic has us reflecting on our lives in so many ways. As it relates to exercising and our daily activities, COVID-19 drastically changed how, when, and with whom we move. People who had accessible neighborhoods with paths, who were enrolled in college, and who were already using wearable devices or Apps to track their running or cycling found themselves more active than before the pandemic(11). But most other people (those who did not succumb to disease) became more sedentary during the last three years (8).
Additionally, many people reported an increase in days of feeling mentally unwell, leading to a lack of participation in exercise or movement on those days and after. Changes in socialization because of isolation as well as easy access to or ability to purchase healthy foods also negatively impacted peoples’ health and mental well-being (8).
One outcome measured by the American Fitness Index was that, on average, Americans gained weight during the pandemic - due to reduced movement, higher levels of stress which leads to increases in cortisol levels, and changes in food access and consumption (8). While weight gain itself is not a direct cause for alarm nor a direct measure of health, these population measures at large indicate some major shifts in our habits and lifestyles.
A Shift to Outdoors
On the other hand, 2023 feels like the first year that people are beginning to re-enter the world of exercise, movement, and particularly outdoor sports again. Without going into the various reasons or perspectives on why the world feels like it’s moving past this pandemic, the trend towards getting back out there and moving again is noticeable!
For instance, people are traveling again to take vacations that include outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, surfing, golfing, and more. Pickleball, an easy to learn and easy to play outdoor game, is the nation’s fastest growing sport for all ages (35 million people played in 2022)! And I’ve seen with my own eyes the increase in runners and walkers all around town, particularly now that it’s springtime.
How Did I Get Here?
Even though we are collectively getting back out there, I have still heard many folks say something like “I just don’t know how I got from where I was there to where I am now,” implying they have noticed a decline in their overall physical fitness or abilities over the last few years.
Unfortunately, research shows that it doesn’t take long for fit individuals to lose their conditioning - both aerobically and muscularly. For folks who have built up significant cardiovascular fitness then stop, they will retain that level of conditioning for around 12 weeks, after which it will decline. Those who have low to moderate cardiovascular fitness and then stop exercising will lose their conditioning more rapidly, in a matter of only a few weeks (1).
This is not necessarily a detrimental effect, as we could consider athletes in an on season period versus an off season period, where their fitness levels rise and fall according to the season. However, when we look at how activity levels dropped and stayed low for the span of a whole year, or two or three years, we can see the effects of the long term reduction in fitness on our bodies in other ways besides just our hearts.
For people who play sports, or participate in more extreme events like marathon running, we see a pretty quick decline in performance after stopping play.
For instance, distance runners can see a drop in their maximal performance (like during a VO2 Max treadmill test) after only 15 days off, and swimmers see a reduction in arm strength after only one month off of swimming (1) . While you will most certainly remember HOW to ride a bike, how to swing a golf club, or how to serve a tennis ball, you will likely notice a reduction in skill performance after just a few weeks off, let alone a year of time off or more.
And for all of us who enjoy strength training, the rate of strength loss correlates to the level of conditioning we have. Those considered advanced weight training folks who have been doing it for a long time and several sessions each week, will maintain their strength gains for a lot longer after they stop altogether than those who are beginners or those who are sedentary and do minimal strength training. Typically, three weeks is the longest a person should take off from strength training before they start to really see a loss in strength and performance.
Mechanotransduction - “Office A$$”
Even more interesting to me is what happens to us when we sit on our butts for a while. Research shows that on an average length plane flight, we can experience as much as a 50% reduction in blood flow to our lower bodies (hips, legs and feet). And when we sit on our butts for long periods of time over long periods of time, the muscles in our butt don’t get exercised like they would in walking or moving around, and the fat cells in our butt become chronically overstretched, leading to an increase in lipid (fat) production in those cells! Wow!
My favorite biomechanist Katy Bowman discusses this phenomenon of mechanotransduction in her book, Don’t Just Sit There, which I highly recommend reading if you are grappling with the concept of fitting in movement during a full work day of office/desk life (4). Plus, your lumbar spine (lower back) bones really don't like it when you sit, especially with poor posture, for long periods of time. If you're going to sit for a while, make sure you have lumbar support, and do your best to get up and stand or stretch out horizontally every so often to give your spine a break (7).
We Are Resilient
Luckily, our bodies are designed on a cellular level to be adaptive, resilient, and essentially, to not completely fall apart. We bank a lot of muscle rebuilding ability during our teenage years, to help buffer our systems as we age. If our muscle cells weren’t programmed to repair and regrow after we damaged them or stopped using them, we would die, and that’s simply not in our biology’s best interest (3)!
It Is Not Too Late
Those of us who kept going during the pandemic, or stopped and started again, are on a great track towards continuing to stay fit - and this has long term benefits towards having stronger, more resilient bodies for a long span of life. It is not too late to begin again - or even to begin working out for the first time. Plus, you may have found that your interests have completely changed during the pandemic and you’ve found yourself bored with the workouts or sports you used to do. Now is a great time to switch things up and try something new.
Exercising is a habit. According to the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a habit = knowledge + skill + desire. So, the key to creating a lasting habit of working out involves not only the desire to try it, but also a patient period of learning to acquire knowledge of how to do it and honing your skills. According to the author, “exercise is one of those… high-leverage activities that most of us don’t do consistently because it isn’t urgent. And because we don’t do it, sooner or later we find ourselves…dealing with the health problems and crises that come as a natural result of our neglect" (6). Some of us don’t find urgency to start exercising until health or an injury forces us to seek help.
If you’re reading this blog post, that most likely means you’re already working out with one of the FIT Carrboro personal trainers, or know someone who is. That means you’ve already taken the proactive steps toward exercising in some way, meaning that on some level, you VALUE exercise. The more you continue acting upon this value of exercise and well being, instead of constantly reacting against the forces that keep you from exercising, the greater the outcomes in your life will be regarding health, self confidence, self esteem, and even your integrity. That sounds pretty great to me!
Maximize Your Potential
According to the book Coaching Knowledges, a major goal of coaches and personal trainers is to “develop independent, pro-active decision makers who embrace their development as a challenge. Through hard work, endeavor and enjoyment [we] encourage players to maximize their potential ensuring that they have no regrets about missed opportunities in performance sport. Seeing a highly motivated player giving everything is as satisfying for [us] as an important victory" (5).
We trainers love seeing you, our clients, learn and explore and find ways outside of the gym to play, perform, and enjoy your physical abilities. It’s always fun to learn about what you all are doing - as seen in our most recent newsletter photo montage! From surfing to hiking, golf to tennis, running to swimming, you all really impress us with your go get it attitude. And did you know that research shows that our creative thinking skills greatly improve after one simple walk outside (4)? All the more reason to get out there and move.
For some of us, a participation trophy is more than enough. But others of us have specific performance goals. Olympic athletes notably do NOT set achievable (“SMART”) goals; they set BIG goals with winning at the top of their mind (2). So if you’re trying to be the G.O.A.T., what are some useful mental strategies you can implement to level up?
According to the book With Winning in Mind (2), author and Olympian Lanny Bassham outlines his seven...
Principles of Mental Management:
Your conscious mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time
What you say is not important. What you cause yourself or others to picture is crucial.
The subconscious mind is the source of all mental power
The Self-Image moves you to do what ever the Conscious Mind is picturing
Self-Image and performance are always equal. To change your performance, you must first change your Self-Image
You can replace the Self-Image you have with the Self-Image you want, thereby permanently changing performance
The Principle of Reinforcement: The more we think about, talk about and write about something happening, we improve the probability of that thing happening
To me, this means we can choose greatness in our performance - whether that means upping our walking mileage each week, winning a game of pickleball, or holding a 10 minute plank during the 2023 Planksgiving Challenge at FIT Carrboro (anyone up for the challenge? Last year’s winner, Sharon, topped out at 9 minutes!).
Our mindset and the things we visualize about ourselves are SO important. We must see ourselves as succeeding. Gayle and I like to think of this as manifesting. We do it all the time!
Stick With It
How do you stick to it? With the helpful insight of the National Institute on Aging (10), here are “Five Tips to Help You Stay Motivated to Exercise”:
Find ways to fit exercise into your day. You are more likely to get moving if exercise is a convenient part of your day.
Do activities you enjoy to make it more fun. Be creative and try something new!
Make it social. Find a virtual “exercise buddy” to help keep you going and provide emotional support. (Lauren would like to add that hiring a personal trainer can serve the role of an “exercise buddy” in the form of accountability and encouragement!)
If there’s a break in your routine, get back on track. Start slowly and gradually build back up to your previous level of activity. Ask your family and friends for support.
Keep track of your progress. Make an exercise plan and don’t forget to reward yourself when you reach your goals.
I hope this has inspired you to GET UP AND GET MOVING! I believe in you.
If you need something to get you going while you’re wandering around your local neighborhood park, I’ll leave you with this link to a basic workout you can try using park and playground equipment: https://www.ideafit.com/personal-training/try-a-workout-at-the-park/
1 American Council on Exercise. (2009) If You Don't Use it, Will You Lose It? Blog Post #6657. ACEfitness.org
2 Bassham, Lanny. (2011) With Winning in Mind: The Mental Management System. Mental Management Systems, Inc.
3 Beres, Derek. (2019) Rewriting the Myth of Use it or Lose It. Bigthink.com
4 Bowman, Katy. (2015) Don't Just Sit There: Transitioning to a Standing and Dynamic Workstation for Whole-Body Health. Propriometrics Press Inc.
5 Bush, Anderson, Markula & Martin. (2007) Coaching Knowledges: Understanding the Dynamics of Sport Performance. Ed. Jim Denison. A+C Black.
6 Covey, Stephen R. (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Simo & Schuster.
7 DiNubile, N & Patrick, W. (2005) FrameWork. Rodale Inc.
8 Fudge J, Permanente K, Zollinger T. (2021) Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Fitness Index Indicators. Americanfitnessindex.org
9 Kremer, Moran, Walker & Craig. (2012) Key Concepts in Sport Psychology. Sage Publications.
10 National Institute on Aging. 5 Tips to Help You Stay Motivated to Exercise. Infographic. nia.nih.gov
11 Park AH, Zhong S, Yang H, Jeong J, Lee C. Impact of COVID-19 on physical activity: A rapid review. J Glob Health. 2022 Apr 30;12:05003. doi: 10.7189/jogh.12.05003. PMID: 35493780; PMCID: PMC8979477.