Exercise and fitness in the time of COVID — it’s hard for some and easy for others – ABC News

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They say crisis creates opportunity.

When COVID hit last year, Nicola Thomas lost access to her one form of exercise, the local swimming pool.

But when her kids’ organised sport was stopped, she suddenly had some time on her hands — and so, for the first time in 20 years, she started to run.

“It’s given me an opportunity to get out and about and do a lot more physical exercise than I normally would,” she said.

And so now, a normal day might begin with a 14-kilometre run.

Nicola Thomas takes a selfie in front of a carpark while in her bicycle helmet.
Nicola Thomas has been able to increase her activity during lockdown, but it hasn’t been the same for everyone.(

Supplied: Nicola Thomas

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People look to exercise in lockdown

There’s no question that the COVID lockdowns have focused people’s minds on exercise.

“During lockdown the online search activities for Google and YouTube has completely exploded, so there’s a lot of online interest for exercise,” Melody Ding, an associate professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, said.

She’s been researching exercise habits during lockdown in Australia and one of her tools has been to look at online searches for exercise options. 

Melody Ding smiles.
Melody Ding has been studying our exercise habits during lockdown.(

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“We saw that after the lockdown, the pattern seemed to change a little, it came down, and then during this lockdown in Sydney it has gone up again.”

People’s motivation for exercise has ebbed and flowed during the various lockdowns over the 18 months.

A SportAus report released this June on the impact of COVID on sport and physical activity found people initially became more physically active last March, before they trailed off.

Come the second Victorian lockdown, women became active again, but not so many men.

That data backs the anecdotal evidence of Victorian gym owner Brad Cunningham.

Brad Cunningham looks to the side of the camera.
Brad Cunningham has seen a lot of people prioritising their fitness during this lockdown.(

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But it’s not always easily done

Not everyone finds it easy to exercise during lockdowns.

Around 20 per cent of Australians have increased their physical activity during the pandemic, while about 20 per cent did less, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics released this week. The data was used in the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s report on the direct and indirect health effects of COVID-19.

Melody Ding stretches while on a yoga mat in a park.
According to Melody Ding, online searches for exercise options increased ten fold on day one of the first lockdown.(

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And, not surprisingly, we’re on screens a lot more.

The ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey found that around 3 in 5 people were spending more time on their phones, computers, TVs, and other devices than before the pandemic.

For some people sitting at home on screens all day can be a real disincentive to moving around.

That’s been the case for Rima Younes, a social worker for a disability support service in Sydney’s south-west suburbs.

Social worker Rima Younes poses for a full length photo, hands behind her back and smiling.
Exercise has decreased for Rima Younes, who lives in one of Sydney’s 12 hotspot areas.(

Supplied: Rima Younes

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She lives in Hurstville, a suburb in one of Sydney’s 12 hotspot LGAs which have faced harsher lockdown restrictions than the rest of the state, including a one-hour time limit for exercise which has only just been lifted.

“I don’t do anything. I probably go for one walk every two, three days, if that,” she said.

She has friends and relatives who have had COVID, including one elderly relative who died from the disease.

“There is that sense of anxiety about leaving the house, wearing the mask — it just seems like such an effort,” she said.

And then there’s the pressure of her job.

“It’s really hard also because of the work that I do; more of my participants are in crisis, I’m constantly tending to their needs.

Postcode can be a deciding factor

Environment is also a factor when it comes to explaining why some people get out of the house to exercise and some don’t.

“We know that exercise facilities and green space and blue space (access to water) — they tend to be socio-economic patterned as well,” Ms Ding said.

“With wealthier suburbs having more places for people to go exercise and enjoy being outside, and quite the opposite for the disadvantaged neighbourhoods.”

An elderly couple wearing masks walk on the Bondi beach boardwalk.
People exercise on the boardwalk at Bondi Beach.(

AAP: Joel Carrett

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Lockdown isn’t so bad if you can swim on the beach or get your kayak out for a paddle on the harbour, as opposed to jogging around hot suburban streets.

That’s one of the divides in Sydney’s current lockdown. Burwood in the inner west, for example, is one of the 12 areas of concern and also has the most people per hectare of parkland in greater Sydney.

While Rima Younes says her suburb does have beautiful bushland within it, she has to drive or walk a long way to get there. When she does, it’s very crowded.

Nicola Thomas, on the other hand, lives in Melbourne’s Eltham, where there are plenty of green spaces.

“I’m very lucky that it’s a leafy green area with lots of trees and I can go down to the river and run along there and it’s a really great environment that’s really good for my mental wellbeing,” she said.

Brad Cunningham has seen that socio-economic divide because of the two gyms he owns — one in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Cheltenham, and the other in the regional Victorian town of Echuca.

Brad Cunningham stands in front of his computer in his gym, hands behind his back.
Brad Cunningham has noticed a difference in exercise culture between Melbourne and regional Victoria.(

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“The culture in this area, it’s getting down to the beach, it’s getting out, being active, it’s going for a walk with your friends,” he said.

“And then if I look at our regional facility, the culture there isn’t anywhere near as active.”

Mr Cunningham, who has three young kids, says trying to eke out time to exercise can be incredibly difficult.

“If you’ve got kids home schooling, you’re trying to work from home, you’ve got kids who are day care age and they’re not at day care, there’s a lot going on in the household,” he said.

He also said that when people worked from home they tended to move less, simply by missing out on incidental movement — walking to the train, or going out for a coffee.

ORIGINAL Female teen working on computer in kitchen
For a lot of people, overall activity has dropped.

“At the moment people are sitting in their kitchen doing their work and they’re walking from the kitchen to the lounge room or toilet or something, they’re not really moving anywhere near as much, so the overall activity level is a lot lower,” he said.

But there might be a silver lining to the pandemic in terms of how people are exercising.

“You can’t go to the gym, so I’ve noticed people are getting out on their bikes more or they’re trying yoga, or pilates, or doing these online programs.

A woman does yoga in front of her computer in her lounge room.
Many people are trying new things, like yoga.(

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Being stuck in lockdown can force some people to make the most of what time they have for exercise.

But for those of us who are finding it difficult, it’s worth remembering that all movement helps — and it’s never too late to start.

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