They found, unsurprisingly, that almost everyone’s exercise habits changed when the pandemic started. An overwhelming majority worked out less, especially once full lockdowns began — regardless of their gender or socioeconomic status. The drop was most marked among those people who had been the most active before the pandemic and among people under the age of about 40 (who were not always the same people).
After lockdowns lifted or eased, most people began exercising a bit more often, but, in general, only those older than 65 returned to or exceeded their previous minutes of exercise.
The results are surprising, says Abi Fisher, an associate professor of physical activity and health at University College London, who oversaw the new study, “especially because 50 percent of the older group were 70 or older.”
Of course, these older people, like the other men and women in the study, downloaded and used an exercise app, which distinguishes them from a vast majority of people around the world who do not use such apps. The study also looked only at “formal” exercises like walking, running or cycling and not lighter activities like strolling or gardening, which can likewise benefit health and most likely also changed during the pandemic.
And the study tells us nothing about why exercise habits differed for people during the pandemic, although some mixture of circumstance and psychology may very likely be a factor. Older people probably had more free time for exercise than younger adults who are juggling child care, work and other responsibilities during the pandemic, Dr. Fisher says. They also might have developed greater concerns about their immune systems and general health, motivating them to get up and move.
Far more large-scale and long-term research about exercise during the pandemic is needed, she said. But for now, the message of the available research seems to be that we may all want to monitor how much we are moving to help assure that we are exercising enough.
“While it is no surprise that the lockdowns disrupted people’s exercise patterns,” Dr. Fisher said, “we cannot just assume everyone will bounce back once restrictions are lifted. We need to help people to get back to doing regular exercise, within the limits of ongoing pandemic restrictions, of course.”