Are the New Government Exercise Recommendations Irrelevant?

Did Covid-19 cause a reduction of stress-alleviating exercise?

Posted Oct 26, 2020

A few days ago, a cold rain driven by a blustery wind, made being outdoors uncomfortable and unpleasant. The early morning runners were absent, and dogs with their owners quickly curtailed their usual morning stroll. “Not a good day to work out in the park,“ said a mutual dog walker, “or anywhere but a gym.” Sighing, she added, “I wish I hadn’t canceled my membership, but I still feel unsafe going there. I guess it’s back to an online class, but I wonder if I am getting enough exercise.”

Her remarks were more relevant than she realized. The government published Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd Edition. The report recommends that adults complete two hours and 30 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity a week, or two hours and 30 minutes to five hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week. Combining moderate with vigorous aerobic activity is also recommended, and allocating it, rather than doing it in one or two days. The report added that muscle-strengthening exercises ought to be included as well, two or more days a week.

The report listed the many benefits to regular exercise, from mental health to longevity. Indeed, it is hard to find anything negative to say about exercise, except that it does increase the amount of laundry one has to do.

The problem: How are we going to do it during the pandemic?

People who are committed to exercising frequently are finding it difficult to find new workout routines, if they typically carried them out in an indoor space. Many who enjoyed the convenience of a health club, community center, yoga/Pilates/spin/indoor rock climbing gym etc., are not too eager to exercise in these spaces because of the possibility of contacting Covid-19 from the person panting beside them on the treadmill or spin bike. Contact sports have been suspended or are worrisome because, for example, the basketball games in a park have players who are in constant contact. Other group outdoor events such as hiking, road races or long-distance bike rides have pretty much become virtual events. Walking to raise money for a charity is done on one’s own.  

Perhaps when winter comes, some outdoor activities such as ice skating, snow shoeing, and skiing, both cross-country and downhill, will be permissible, since participants are covered almost head to toe with clothes to keep them warm and dry from melting snow and ice. But, as a devoted skier friend told us, “There is no skiing for me this winter unless I can ride the chair lift alone and avoid going into the cafeteria for food and a warm drink.“ And what about a crowded beach where people are not wearing masks?

Online classes are a substitute, and a useful one, since they provide a range of options suitable for the unfit to the extremely fit. So is home exercise equipment, which, by this time, should have been dusted off, spider webs removed, and brought into an appealing area (rather than a dimly lit cellar) for frequent use. As boring as using the same piece of equipment may be, those who have such equipment know that when the weather does not permit outside activity, they have an alternative.

Dog owners without a yard certainly walk, but if the canine is no longer a puppy, the speed of the walk may not reach the level of moderate exercise. Moreover, if the destination is a dog park a block away, the dog will get plenty of exercise, whereas the owner will no doubt be standing and chatting with other owners. House and yard work do require some physical activity, but rarely does the heart rate increase while emptying the dishwasher or taking out the trash.

And will those who were not engaging in regular exercise before the start of the pandemic begin, now that these new guidelines have been issued? Failure to exercise is often the consequence of lack of access to workout spaces either commercial or at home, no exercise equipment in their homes, a neighborhood where there are no sidewalks and street lights, or even more fundamental, the time and /or money to exercise beyond the physical activity needed to carry out typical daily activities.

Adding to these pre-Covid-19 difficulties is the closure of public schools and the new normal of remote learning. The parent/teacher may have no time to exercise, especially if he or she is both working from home and responsible for making sure that children in the household are involved in their on-line learning.

And we may even be more sedentary than before the pandemic. The errands that we used to do required some walking, since drive-through supermarkets, post offices, libraries, dry cleaners, or drug stores are practically non-existent. Unless everything was delivered, we had to walk up and down a supermarket aisle or walk to a mailbox. But now avoiding crowds means, for some, never leaving home or the immediate neighborhood; no walking to the store or from the car to a shopping mall. Home delivery of just about everything has replaced getting the items oneself, and we end up sitting even more.  

No one knows how long the pandemic will last. How long can we wait until the lack of exercise further increases our stress, as well as our risk of developing metabolic problems? What should we do?

One of the first things is to see just how much physical activity actually occurs over a week. Devices are available that track physical activity and apps are available for smartphones that record, more or less accurately, the number of steps taken daily, and the minutes/hours spent in taking those steps. If, according to the guidelines, at least two and a half hours of exercise should be done each week, an app like Steps will record the time spent walking, as well as the walking distance. The walking does not have to be done outside or on exercise equipment; the app will record all walking.

Determining how much of the physical activity is vigorous or moderate is also important. The intensity of exercise is related to how close it comes to increasing heart rate to its maximum. Maximum heart rate is determined by subtracting age from 220. If you take your pulse after five minutes of exercise and your heart rate is 50-60 percent of maximum heart rate, your exercise is considered moderate. If your heart rate is 70-85 percent of your maximum heart rate, then it is vigorous.

Few non-competitive athletes are going to be able to sustain vigorous, or even moderate exercise, for two and a half hours at once. But it can be done if five or ten minutes, twice a day, is spent in some activity that will increase the heart rate. My puppy who seems to run a four-minute mile manages to get my heart rate close to maximum when we run together in the park. Five minutes is about all I can do without an oxygen tank nearby, but at least I engage in vigorous exercise a couple of times a day. Climbing stairs rapidly, jumping rope for a minute, pushing a heavy wheelbarrow across the yard, carrying heavy grocery bags up stairs, and yes, eventually shoveling snow will increase one’s heart rate, albeit briefly.  (None of this should be done without a physician’s assurance that it is safe to do so.)

Adults, like children, need recess but we forget to give it to ourselves. Think of exercise as recess for the mind as the body; both will benefit.