Since Lockdown, I’ve Stopped Seeing Fitness As A Chore To Be Squeezed Into My Day

Jo-Ann, 33, was made redundant a week before lockdown started in the UK. After retreating into herself and hiding in her covers for a week, she knew she had to get out of the house. So she started to walk.
"I began constructing these long, meandering walks around the empty city. I live by myself and watching the time pass alone and jobless wasn't good for my mental health."
Walking through the city became a respite from a world that felt like it was collapsing in on itself. It became such a feature in her life that it even turned into a volunteer position as a park ranger. "During one of these walks in Victoria Park, I got talking to a ranger there called Shaun. They were looking for volunteers and my walking became more regimented. Three days a week I walked the 40 minutes to the park, spent three hours patrolling in my high-vis before once again heading home on foot."
With lockdown closing gyms and keeping the majority of us inside, the ways many of us choose to move our bodies were abruptly cut off. And while many forms of exercise could be done from the living room, motivating yourself at home is a task that’s easier said than done. And that’s assuming you have access to equipment, space and understanding neighbours.
Instead, many found themselves turning to the most basic and accessible forms of exercise: walking, running and cycling. Since April there’s been a monumental 92% increase in downloads of the Couch to 5K app compared to the same period last year, as well as a huge increase in demand for bikes. It makes sense: you can't use gyms, it's warmer, it's free (unless you're buying a bike) and you get to be in the fresh air. It's also a way to travel without the anxiety of public transport. Ella, 24, has been cycling across London to see her friends once or twice a week. As well as giving her more confidence as a road user, it served as a way to reconnect her with the city. Plus, taking a relatively arduous journey is a gift in itself. "It feels like cycling across London is quite a lovely way to show your friends how much you value them. That’s certainly how it’s felt when friends have come to see me."
However the biggest factor has been the time and mental energy that lockdown has given many people to reconsider how and why they exercise, taking it from a chore to something they can really enjoy. Shayane, 25, began doing a mix of running and yoga for her mental health after being a complete hermit for the first three months of lockdown. "My anxiety became really bad in lockdown, and I stopped leaving the house almost entirely. One evening, I watched the film Brittany Runs a Marathon and felt really moved by it – I recognised some of my own self-destructive habits in the protagonist, but also some of the obsessive tendencies when it's come to exercise. It always had to be 'all perfect, lots of intense fitness classes' or not doing anything at all. I thought I had to be miserable in order to do exercise." Now, running is something she does slowly but consistently to help lift some of the fog of anxiety.

Exercise in the gym seemed like another chore to complete, everyone rushing in to tone or trim in the 45 minutes of free time allotted to them before they had to be back at their desks. It felt like maintenance. Running feels like I'm growing, like I'm getting stronger just for myself.

Cait, 29
Cait, 29, echoes this. The solitary, sometimes meandering nature of running helped her reframe what working out does for her. "When I'm running it's just me and my body, there's no start or end time to the class, or specific location, or expensive athleisure uniform. I used to go to a gym near our office in Soho for lunchtime classes. Exercise there seemed like another chore to complete, everyone rushing in to tone or trim in the 45 minutes of free time allotted to them before they had to be back at their desks. It felt like maintenance. Running feels like I'm growing, like I'm getting stronger just for myself."
There has been a trend towards high intensity, high tech and expensive workouts in recent years – ones that are designed to slot into the schedule of those who are busy (and can afford it) and are sold for their efficiency. But running, walking and cycling through the city is the opposite of that. These are not neat, concise bursts of fitness we can fit into our day but often long and meandering. And what they lack in efficiency, they make up for in other benefits.
Specialist musculoskeletal physiotherapist Uzo Ehiogu points to heart health as the primary benefit of cardiovascular fitness, which in turn helps with other conditions. "We currently have a situation where a lot of the population have co-morbidities such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes. Cardiovascular fitness has been shown time and time again to improve blood pressure, to improve blood sugar levels."
It also has its use in reducing joint pain and stiffness, and improves brain function. And then of course there’s its impact on stress. "I think a lot of that is the fact that you're able to effectively take charge of your life, you're able to spend time doing something which actually takes you away from the daily grind of whatever is stressing you out, which actually can be quite restorative."
In this way, the time-consuming, reflective and often solitary nature of cardiovascular exercise has an important psychological function. Counselling Directory member and psychotherapist Gary Bloom points out that the loss of the gym environment also means the loss of the socialisation. This creates space for self-reflection, which is a fundamental part of psychotherapy and psychological wellbeing. Walking, running or cycling gives you a chance to step away from everything else you've been doing and reflect: what are we doing, what is all this about, what do I need to do? "This is really important psychological work and this is a fantastic opportunity for people of all generations to step outside what they've been doing. Plus, when you are exercising there's dopamine being released in the brain to destress you, so a lot of both those thoughts and reflections are a lot more possible. You can't do that in the gym."
As gym classes restart and the government pushes for the economy to reopen, that time and space people have found to move, breathe and reflect will inevitably be eaten up by work and commitments. This is not the fault of gyms or trainers necessarily, especially as access to a range of activities is important. But the benefits people have found from more wholesome exercise can only be continually accessed if working and commuting doesn't dominate people's existence.
If we truly care about people’s wellbeing (which this government only claims to do through gritted teeth) then people need to have the time, space and energy to move in ways they want to. So as lockdown continues to ease and the work culture of Before Coronavirus threatens to return, we should try to hold on to the simple pleasure of plodding or pedalling around the park at our own pace, instead of seeing fitness as a chore to be squeezed into as little time as possible. As Cait said: "If we end up with a return to an abysmal 9-5 office working culture then I won't be able to keep up my current running schedule."
"I'll fight to carve out space for it whatever, though. It's too good to give up."

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