Plus, the surprising way social distancing is healing my relationship with exercise.

By Julia Malacoff
Apr 03, 2020 @ 4:00 pm
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I’ve never been a home workout person. I just figured, why exercise in my apartment when I can go to a gym that has every type of equipment I could possibly want?

Full disclosure: I’m a certified trainer and nutrition coach, and I write about health and fitness for a living. So the gym is a happy place for me. (I literally picked one of the hotels on my honeymoon in part because it had a nice gym.)

But thanks to coronavirus, my last gym workout was nearly a month ago. Though my gym didn’t officially close for another week after I stopped going, I saw the writing on the wall.

I thought I would hate being forced to work out from home. But it turns out, the experience has given me a whole new appreciation for what you can accomplish outside of a gym with limited equipment. And to my surprise, it’s helped me to find a more fun and forgiving approach to exercise in general.

Here, the five things that I'm doing to help prioritize my health and fitness during the coronavirus quarantine.

1. Purposefully move every day, even for five minutes.

Pre-coronavirus, I limited my workouts to four days a week. I was always exercising at a pretty high intensity, and I needed the rest days. Plus, who has time to go to the gym more than that?

Part of the reason I’m working out most days right now is because I can’t achieve the same intensity I would in a gym. I don’t have an at-home substitute for a barbell loaded with twice my bodyweight. So I’m opting for shorter, more frequent workouts.

The other reason I’m working out more often than usual is for my mental health. Anyone lucky enough to be working from home right now (as opposed to those who must continue working outside their homes, despite the dangers, or who have lost their jobs due to coronavirus) knows it’s easy to go from the bed, to sitting looking at the computer, to the couch once you’re finished with work. Incorporating movement as much as possible — whether in the form of a workout or just a trip up and down the stairs — gives your body and brain a quick break from both work and the reality of what’s happening in the world right now. And I’ve found that when my mind is occupied by physical movement, I’m less likely to ruminate on worst case scenarios.

I’m not saying you should push your limits every single day — or that you should try to keep up the same level of workout intensity while the world is collectively going through something utterly traumatic. But doing something each day is key, even if it's just stretching for five minutes.

2. Keep up with a mobility routine.

We’re all probably sitting more than we’re used to. That means tight hips, hunched up shoulders, and the infamous forward head posture — that thing that happens when you’re looking at a screen and your chin juts out forward, bringing your whole head and neck out of alignment.

So while having some kind of mobility routine is important no matter what, it’s extremely important now. If this concept is new to you, here's a quick lesson: Mobility is different from flexibility. It means you can move your joints through their full range of motion. Tight muscles make it really hard to do that.

For me, a mobility routine looks like taking a break midday to do some foam rolling and other mobility exercises (I recommend checking out Dr. Jen Esquer's Instagram account. She's a physical therapist and has a bunch of free resources available). I also do them before every home workout. That way, I avoid the aches and pains associated with not moving around as much as I normally do. 

3. Rest when you need it.

I’ve always been the kind of person who could stick to a workout schedule. If my schedule said I should go to the gym, I’d go — even if I didn’t feel great. Only now am I realizing that was a problem. Now more than ever, listening to your body is important. Translation: If I really truly don’t feel like working out, I don’t.

When deciding whether or not to work out, I ask myself: “Will this workout make me feel better afterwards, or worse?” If the answer is “worse,” I take a guilt-free day off, and I would encourage anyone else to do the same.

Obviously, you have to be honest with yourself. Exercise isn’t going to make you feel worse every single day. But it’s a problem that fitness and diet culture tell us that there are “no excuses” for not fitting in a workout. In reality, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to skip a workout. If you’re exhausted, extremely stressed, or just not feeling it today, don’t force it.

One caveat here re: stress. If you’re feeling super stressed most days, as many of us are right now, exercise can really help release some of that energy. It can also help you sleep better, which can indirectly help you feel better. So if stress is the reason you’re not exercising most days, my advice would be to start small. Do whatever feels reasonable to you, even if that’s just doing one exercise and then stopping, or jogging for five minutes. Exercise doesn’t have to be perfect or super intense to be beneficial.

4. Be open-minded about your workouts.

It’s well-documented that strength training is ideal for those who want to build muscle, lose fat, and protect their health and longevity. (Especially when coupled with an adequate amount of protein, but that’s another topic entirely…) Of course, from a health perspective, you also need some cardiovascular exercise, but most people are able to achieve this through strength training. For these reasons, I normally don’t have much interest in non-weightlifting workouts. And I actually normally wouldn’t recommend them to clients, unless they already have another activity or class they love.

But since being homebound, I’ve started to crave variety. That’s made me willing to try workouts that I wouldn’t normally consider. I haven’t done a dance cardio workout in at least five years, but last weekend, I inexplicably found myself doing one of Megan Roup’s The Sculpt Society cardio classes in my bedroom while my husband loitered outside, quietly laughing at my horrible, awkward dancing.

And you know what? I realized that when the class was over, I had a huge smile on my face — something a weightlifting workout rarely ever does for me. So I’m going to keep doing dance cardio. The chances of getting back into a gym anytime soon are looking increasingly lower, so I’d recommend variety to anyone hoping to keep up an exercise habit at home.

5. Try not to stress about gaining weight or getting less fit.

Will my body change now that I no longer have access to a gym? Probably. Will I be able to lift the same amount of weight or run as fast as I could pre-coronavirus? Definitely not.

There have been times in my life when having visible abs and getting stronger every gym session were important to me. This is not one of those times.

I acknowledge that I have the privilege of being in a fit body. For me, this is a time for keeping things in perspective, self-compassion, and asking myself how much my body goals really matter in the scheme of things. And I’d encourage anyone else in a similar position to do the same. 

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.