Lockdown and social distancing are considered as the best ways to the prevent spread of COVID-19 and protect lives during the pandemic. While gyms and fitness clubs closed in the U.S. in line with lockdown measures, the exercise and activity levels of Americans changed.
This article explores the impact of the lockdown on fitness regimes of Americans.
Exercise habits before the pandemic
Exercise guidelines are given out by Department of Health and Human Services for different age groups in the U.S. The federal body recommends Americans to get 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate intensity workout or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. A 2018 report from the NCHS (National Center for Health Statistics) indicates only 25 percent of Americans met these physical activity guidelines in the years before the pandemic.
Decline in physical activity during the pandemic
A preliminary study by Cambridge Open Engage in 2020 found that Americans were exercising less than their usual levels during the pandemic. The study evaluated the impact of pandemic-related restrictions on mental health, sedentary time and physical activity of 3,052 US adults in 2020. The study found that those who exercised regularly before the pandemic reported 32 percent reduction in exercise after social-distancing measures came into effect. Those who were not physically active before the pandemic continued to be sedentary during the pandemic.
Data from fitness-trackers and wearables from Fitbit, Apple, Withings and Evidation, a health research firm, confirm the above findings. While the figures on drop in exercise vary from 7 to 50 percent, the data on the whole suggests fitness regimes in terms of step counts declined during the lockdown as compared to pre-pandemic times.
Step counts decreased to a lesser degree in some states that are not densely populated such as Alaska, New Mexico, Kentucky, West Virginia and Mississippi., New Mexico and West Virginia. The decrease in step counts were relatively more in urban areas including Washington, D.C., Daily steps went up in some states including Louisiana (by 4 percent), Indiana (by 16 percent) and West Virginia (by 9 percent).
The Cambridge study also found a link between the drop in exercise activity and mental health. People who reduced their exercise during the pandemic felt their mental health was poorer than those who stuck to their workout regimen.
As per Statista, a 2020 survey revealed that 27 percent of Americans reported exercising less frequently than usual because of the health crisis. While 17 percent increased their exercise frequency, 53 percent reported that there was no change in their exercise frequency.
A global study showed that there was no change in the fitness regime of 44.2 percent while 23.7 percent reported a decline. Close to 31 percent stated their exercise frequency increased during the pandemic. Among those who continued to exercise, 52.3 percent said the intensity of physical activity was similar to pre-pandemic times. While 30.2 percent exercised at lower intensity, 9.1 percent exercised at higher intensities. Additionally, 35.7 percent reported that their exercise duration did not change during the pandemic. While 31.4 percent reported shorter exercise duration, 24.5 percent said they exercised for longer duration.
The researchers in this study observed that there was a linear relationship between mood and exercise frequency. Those who frequently exercised during the pandemic had the most positive mood.
Although these studies show that exercise habits either remained unchanged from pre-pandemic levels or declined, other data indicates a spike in exercise activity.
In a study conducted across the U.S, Australia and the U.K, researchers found that there was a spike in Google searchers for ‘exercise.’
Another study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science shows that physical activity levels decreased in US children during the pandemic. Health guidelines recommend an hour of moderate-to-vigorous activity for children to ensure healthy development. Eighty percent of parents stated that organized sports and physical activities were cancelled during the pandemic. Community activity and play also decreased across all age groups.
Impact on health
Many family physicians and obesity researchers warned that lack of exercise could increase health risks and weight gain for millions of Americans during the pandemic. In many instances, the major factors were “lifestyle” factors that worsened health, such as poor diet, stress and lack of exercise. A survey by American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) that involved over 900 doctors revealed that 60 percent family doctors observed increased rate of obesity in their patients. While the stress of the pandemic was a key factor, lack of exercise contributed to weight gains between the range of 10 to 30 pounds.
Popular wearable fitness tracker, Fitbit, found there was a decline in daily active minutes and steps across the globe. This was despite more people downloading apps for yoga, meditation and running. Step counts were also found to have declined by 27 percent in another study within a month of the pandemic outbreak across the globe.
Fitness app downloads
Between the first two quarters of 2020, fitness app downloads increased by 46 percent across the world according to World Economic Forum. Asia-Pacific and African countries recorded the greatest number of downloads. North and South America accounted for 21 percent of the world’s fitness app downloads.
Along with increase in downloads, the number of daily active users also grew during the lockdown period in 2020. While in the U.S. there was 8 percent increase in fitness app downloads, this could be because there were more users of these apps to start with. Despite the lower rate of downloads, Americans who adopted and used fitness apps enjoyed them.
The apps that were downloaded the most were on meditation, sleep and relaxation such as Calm that grossed $8.5 million. Headspace was another mindfulness app that raked in a revenue of $5.5 million. MyFitnessPal, an app that helps users track their exercise and diet ranked third.
Spotlight on home workouts
A Freeletics-OnePoll survey showed that 74 percent of people in the U.S. used one fitness app at least during quarantine. Out of these 60 percent enjoyed home workouts to the extent that they intend to cancel their gym membership. Researchers surveyed over 2000 Americans to find out their behaviors and mindsets during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey also found that:
· 72 percent of Americans found that maintaining their fitness routine was easier while exercising at home.
· 41 percent of people who used a fitness app were first-time users
· Four online classes and two fitness apps were used during lockdown by the average American.
· 55 percent of women and 65 percent of men said they felt intimidated when they worked out at gym
· For 65 percent of survey respondents, exercising alone at home was a confidence booster during the lockdown.
While 29 percent tried yoga, 34 percent started meditating during the lockdown for the first time. For three-fourths of Americans, exercise was an effective coping mechanism during the lockdown. The mental health benefits were the reason why 63 percent had newfound respect for mindfulness and meditation. As opposed to 67 percent of women, 80 percent of men exercised during the lockdown to strengthen their mental health. For women, the main reasons for working out during the lockdown were to reduce boredom and stay in shape.
With home workouts gaining preference during lockdown, fitness studios and gyms were left with no option than to boost their digital presence. Many fitness clubs began to offer virtual workout classes. Fitness instructors and gyms were quick to innovate and move online. Yoga classes and meditation moved to Zoom while there were a plethora of apps that people could use to exercise at home. In the first quarter of 2020, fitness equipment sales in the U.S. went up by as much as 55 percent as a result of the lockdown. Some gyms also rented out their fitness equipment to members as ‘foster’ programs.
Investment in fitness equipment
As home workouts became the trend, there was a concomitant growth in home fitness equipment investment. The average spend on home fitness equipment was $95.79 in 2020. While resistance bands, dumbbells and yoga mats are the frequently bought equipment, 21 percent bought a elliptical or treadmill. A quarter of Americans bought an exercise bike.
Exercise equipment maker Peloton doubled sales of fitness equipment in 2020 to generate a revenue of $1.8 billion during the lockdown.
Fitness equipment industry witnessed an incredible 40.4 percent growth rate (compound annual growth rate) during the pandemic. While the market was valued at $6.76 billion in the pre-pandemic times in 2019, after the outbreak, it went up to $9.49 billion.
Many studies indicate that exercise habits changed across the globe after the pandemic outbreak. An overwhelming majority in the U.S. worked out less, after the full lockdown measures came into effect. The drop was more pronounced in urban, densely populated states than in rural areas that are less densely populated. Data from fitness apps, trackers and fitness equipment sales, however, show that there was a sharp rise in sales of fitness devices for home use and app downloads.