Exercising in the New Normal

Workouts you can do at home are popping up everywhere on the Internet, and that’s a good thing. Sheltering in place is a necessary public health measure, but it could leave us in worse shape if we don’t figure out ways to keep moving. Staying physically active supports your immune system, reduces the hours spent sitting, and helps keep depression and anxiety at bay.

The trouble is, the workouts I’m seeing tend to be one-size-fits-all, and are often unrealistic for people who aren’t in great shape already. Here are a few tips to help you stay fit or get more fit during this stay-at-home period.

No matter what shape you’re in

This is a time to prioritize support for your immune function. That means getting extra rest and putting together healthy meals. It doesn’t take much cooking skill to chop vegetables for soup or make a tuna salad. But a good meal can be even simpler than that: warm a takeout rotisserie chicken and add some vegetables steamed in the microwave. When you cook for yourself, you know exactly what you’re eating, and your meals will generally be lower in fat, sodium, sugar and calories than frozen foods or restaurant dishes.

Don’t forget that physical activity other than formal “exercise” counts, too. It could be working in your garden, playing with grandchildren, or cleaning. Anything that adds steps, bending, lifting, and other kinds of movement to your day will burn calories and help your body function.

If you normally work out inconsistently or not at all:

Having fewer activities and more unstructured time at home can be an opportunity. What’s more, we’ve shown how dramatically lifestyle habits can change in a very short time. What’s keeping us from creating a new habit of doing something active every day? Having a scheduled time for that will help you follow through on your intention.

A great way to start is by simply walking every day. Health guidelines are generally encouraging people to get outdoors as long as they stay six feet from others. Start your program with a realistic target. If at the outset it’s just five minutes at a slow pace, that’s fine. Just keep at it, gradually upping the duration and pace over time. You’ll be surprised at how much better you will feel in a matter of weeks.

If the weather keeps you inside, try walking in place to music with a beat, lifting your knees high and pumping your arms with each step. Climbing stairs is another alternative.

Doing some slow, gentle stretches will help you stay limber and reduce aches and pains. Don’t strain or force yourself past your limits.    

If you normally work out regularly:

Don’t worry that you can’t replicate what you were doing before. You can still put together a respectable workout using classic body weight exercises like push-ups, squats, dips, lunges, planks, and mountain climbers. Calisthenics like jumping jacks and burpees will get your heart pumping, too. 

This is a great time to buy some basic workout equipment online. A set of resistance bands will set you back $25 or so, and you can snag a set of small dumbbells for $50 to $100, depending on the weights you want. When this crisis is over, you’ll be equipped for those times you can’t make it to the gym.

Think in terms of shifting to a different emphasis or training principle, which many trainers recommend you do periodically anyway. For example, you could go to low weights/high repetitions or focus more on flexibility and range of motion. Take this opportunity to address your areas of weakness, whatever they might be.

If you’re accustomed to high-intensity workouts, it might make sense to back off the intensity a bit for now, especially if you’re older. The point is to avoid stressing immune systems that may be challenged in the weeks ahead.

When you’re able to return to the gym, scale back the amount of weight you’re lifting. If you go right back to your old routine, you will be risking an injury that could hamper you even more than the coronavirus has. Be safe, and after a few re-entry workouts you’ll be as strong as you were before.