Staying active in times of a pandemic: KPE experts share insights and tips

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash
Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

In these unprecedented times when people are encouraged to stay indoors and keep their distance when outdoors, many are wondering how they can stay physically active and continue to reap the benefits of physical fitness. We reached out to researchers from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education for tips and insights on everything from whether or not continuing to exercise is a healthy practice at this time to how to exercise together while apart. 

Professor Ira Jacobs, dean of KPE, Professor Catherine Sabiston, Canada research chair in physical activity and mental health, Assistant Professor David Frost, director of the Master of Professional Kinesiology program, and Assistant Professor Daniel Santa Mina, an expert in exercise and cancershare their thoughts below.

Should we continue to exercise in the middle of a pandemic? 

Ira Jacobs: There is no research completed yet about the adaptations and responses to exercise for those who are infected with COVID-19. But, there is a substantial knowledge about exercise and other viral diseases that is likely applicable to COVID-19.  Importantly, exercise involves multiple stressors to the human body that elicit a wide range of physiological responses, among them an immunological response. 

So, by continuing to exercise we build immunity?

IJ: The key word here is “continue.” If you are already a regular aerobic fitness practitioner, then you are reaping some benefits of having a stronger and more effective innate or natural immune response to many inflammatory stimuli. However, there are other immunological reactions that are very dependent on antibodies being produced in the body in response to a viral threat, for example.  Several days are normally required for such antibodies to be produced and the benefits of aerobic fitness to augmenting this type of immunity are less certain. 

Exercise immunologists have also demonstrated that vigorous exercise or even a sudden change in exercise intensity caused by an intentional decision to have a “harder” training session can acutely and temporarily weaken the immune system.  Moreover, adding additional stressors, such as a hot or very cold day or even psychological stress can all have synergistic effects that can further acutely weaken the immune system. 

But maintaining regular exercise levels is advisable, correct?

IJ: Yes, regular exercisers can and should feel comfortable in maintaining a moderate intensity exercise routine to which they are already accustomed. Research also tells us that engaging in light-intensity movement has mental health benefits. This is not the time, however, to try to “up the ante” and avoiding high intensity exercise or a longer duration training bout than normal would be wise. 

What would you say to people who don’t exercise regularly, but want to use this time to start being more physically active?

IJ: I would say certainly feel free to start light and short and gradually work up to the recommendations of reputable organizations such as the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. Just remember that this is not the time to engage in high intensity exercise or long workouts if you’re not accustomed to either. 

With gyms understandably off limits, how can we use our home as a gym? Are there household items we can use instead of gym equipment and how? 

Catherine Sabiston: It’s a misnomer that exercise needs any equipment. Working on foundational strength, flexibility and agility can be done with no equipment and in limited space. Take advantage of fitness and lifestyle apps, many of which are free to help people get through this pandemic. Or follow some personal trainers on social media for exercise options. KPE’s Sport and Recreation program is also posting household exercise programs on their Instagram account. 

Think about adding more exercise to your lifestyle using strategies like taking the stairs or walking around as much as possible, doing simple exercises such as push-ups off the couch, walking or running on the spot, or doing wall-sits, squats or planks while watching your favourite programs, waiting for the coffee to drip or feeding your kids or pets. Small actions done consistently will make a difference. 

The bottom line is to keep moving. If you have a pedometer or an app on your phone that measures steps, it is a good time to enable it so you can be informed of the amount of movement you are doing daily. Set timers to get up regularly throughout the day and stand at the kitchen counter to work every now and then. 

But be cautious, and as already mentioned, it is not the time to start a high intensity exercise program. 

David Frost: I would strongly echo the fact that absolutely any piece of furniture, appliance or structure at home can be used to accommodate an at home exercise program. Provided that the activities are perceived as relevant and fun, the options are limitless. Here's an example of a five minute workout indoors.

What would you suggest to people who thrive on exercising in company? 

IJ: Definitely exercise in “virtual” company. Until we know more about the specific COVID-19 virus, my advice is that any recommendations about effective social distancing should be magnified by at least three times the normally recommended social distance between people. That is because of the belief that the water vapour and droplets expelled through our normal respiration constitute important viral transmission vehicles.  The force with which we expire air, and therefore the distance travelled by that air, is much, much greater during exercise. So, for the time being, stick to virtual company and/or exercise alone and at a much greater distance than normal from others you encounter while exercising.

CS: Our colleague, Associate Professor Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, reminded us that it is physical distancing that is important, not SOCIAL distancing. Stay connected through alternate ways. It’s important.

What are some ways that we can exercise together while apart? 

CS: It is really important to stay connected for social and emotional well-being. You could go for a walk alone, but stay virtually connected with friends or family and get caught up while you’re walking. 

Create a challenge among your friends or family members to complete different activities each day. Based on our research, texting people and asking them about their exercise plans is as effective social support and motivation for some people as is being present in person. Text/message/voice note people to keep them accountable and ask others to do the same for you.

With play dates discouraged at this time, what advice do you have for parents on how to keep their kids active indoors?

CS: The best thing for kids is to practice the foundational skills of their favourite sports. For example, set up a golf putting challenge into a cup or practice ball skills with a tennis racquet or table tennis paddle. Practice basketball or soccer ball dribbling and juggling skills. You can also set up a hockey net indoors using a cardboard box or many boxes of different sizes and use rolled up socks, a nerf ball or a soft puck. If you tie a string between chairs, you can set up a volleyball game with a balloon or beach ball. Also think about creating obstacle courses to teach and practice skills. 

There are apps like Sworkit that offer free online workouts for kids and there are also lots of meditation and yoga online videos. It is important that kids are moving every day, so limiting screen time and creating activities like scavenger hunts can help keep them moving. Timed or counted challenges like wall sits, running on the spot and jumping jacks can also be fun.

If you have the technology, exergaming is also a great way to have fun while being active – for kids and parents. There is no better time than to try your dance moves in the Just Dance! video game. 

How do we motivate our aging parents to stay safe and be physically active?

CS: The key is to ensure that people are not more sedentary than usual and also to understand that now is not the time to jump full energy into a new program or activity routine. Have parents map out their days, the times they would usually be more active during the day. They can set up a schedule to get up and walk around their home during those times. Encourage social connections during the same times as their regular calendar. For example, if they go to choir practice twice a week, see if they can virtually connect with their choir and maintain the practice time. The same applies to art class or exercise. If parents live in communal housing spaces, it would be wise to dedicate time for each resident to walk the halls independently. The key during this pandemic is to keep moving while also maintaining physical distance.

What are some activities we can safely do outdoors while keeping our distance from others seeking to do the same? 

CS: There is no better time than using the outdoor environment to be active. Now is not the time to start pull-ups from the children’s playgrounds, but stepping up on to benches and bleachers, walking hills and stairs, and walking at different paces between different lamp posts or mailboxes or bus stops can be motivating.

Daniel Santa Mina: It’s amazing to see all the people walking outside and trying to be active at a safe distance. It speaks to human nature to move. The biggest barrier, lack of time, is gone for many people and lots of people are itching to get outdoors and be active. It’s difficult to stop.