Physical Activity: Preparing now for life after COVID-19

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This Get Set Leeds latest blog post comes from the School of Sport at Leeds Beckett University. Collaboratively written by Jim McKenna PhD Professor of Physical Activity and Health, and Alexandra Potts PhD who is a Research Fellow.

There is no situation, there is no age, there is no condition where exercise is not a good thing. So, anything that can be done to encourage people and allow people to take exercise is clearly a good thing”: Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England.

As the global lockdown response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues, social distancing is essential. Yet, during the lockdowns the CMO encouraged us all to remain active once a day. Has this exercise “allocation” helped us to become more inventive about how to do physical activity (PA)? Or maybe lockdown created the conditions for more time on screens, sitting down? 

While there is a powerful Public Health case for engaging in regular PA, relying solely on information to change behaviour won’t work. It is more effective to prompt people into action when the action manages how they feel. Chris Witty recognised that PA brings powerful, positive feelings; these feelings not only influence our mental health and wellbeing but also they manage and reduce the side effects of anxiety disorders and depression. Interestingly, just seven days of enforced sedentariness – the sort that a lockdown scenario might cause – is enough to initiate depression in previously healthy young people.

COVID may have shifted your perspective on PA. Just as tube and petrol strikes do more for daily walking than any amount of campaigning could ever manage, COVID brought more societal change than years of Public Health advocacy. Many people have rediscovered the joy and satisfaction that comes with outdoor exercise. Others have tried online options, with anything from Jo Wicks’ classes to Zoom-based aerobics. Social media challenges such as “run 5, nominate 5, donate 5” have gathered momentum too. The trend for exercise snacking has been discovered by those who prefer their PA in 5-minute bouts.

Of course, just as some are finding opportunity in lockdowns, others – probably a majority – have struggled to sustain even their low levels of pre-COVID PA.

Adapting to lockdowns required us to establish new distinctions between home and work. This new context gave the impetus for changing our daily routines. Have you noticed that the emergence of cashless payments made your shopping more impulsive? Taking a more directive stance, intentionally dedicating the time previously used for commuting to, say, walking and using PA to signal the end of the working day helped people to do more PA at home. In this way, some folk are modifying old habits (e.g., commuting), while others made new behavioural adjustments (e.g., using PA to signal the end of the workday). Yet, many still live with the fantasy that, without any effort, post-lockdown will bring a better lifestyle. Behavioural science can take us beyond that level of wishful thinking.

Post-lockdown PA will revert to relying on the continuous decision-making – the sort that requires on-going opt-in. That will make PA as challenging in the new context as it was before COVID was ever heard of. After all, it is far simpler to do PA at home than to do all the paraphernalia of gym classes etc: packing gym kit, driving to the gym, showering, and so on. That new context is likely to be turbulent, not least because it is new. It makes sense to plan for it. Start today. It will take time to build an understanding of what will work for you in this new context.

It may help to think of the post-COVID time as offering a fresh start. This ‘fresh start effect’ occurs when a break from ‘normal’ (e.g., birthdays, anniversaries, holidays) creates space for reimagining ourselves and our preferred futures. ‘Fresh start’ can release the full power of our adaptive capacities in the post-lockdown too.

Importantly, learn how to support your new PA routines without the simplicity that accompanied enforced lockdown. Deliberately intending to transfer your positive PA habits into the new time will be another powerful force for good. This ‘habit transfer’ involves using what has worked in one context to another, using the same underlying processes and skills. Telling your friends and contacts about that process will also help them to establish new social norms for both PA and for using habit transfer. In that process, we reposition ourselves – because of our influence on creating those norms – as social influencers. The resulting ‘social buzz’ around PA will then make our own PA easier.

Use those approaches to learn what works for you. Plan how to transfer your new skills to the time when lockdown is over. Plan for the inevitable ‘tensions’ and pinch points that will come as PA has to fit within your busy lifestyle. Do all you can to intentionally maintain your new PA routine. That will help you to achieve your preferred future.

Alexandra J. Potts and Jim McKenna

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