COVID-19 and Physical Activity

Dr Gemma Ryde, Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, University of Stirling

A mother does a virtual exercise class with her daughters in their living room.

In the second installment of the University’s COVID-19 bitesize lecture series, Dr Gemma Ryde explores the impact of COVID-19 on pysical activiy and exercise. The virtual lecture is available to watch online, and a transcript is provided below.

My name is Gemma Ryde, and I’m going to be talking to you about COVID-19 and physical activity. This presentation was created by the Stirling Physical Activity Research, Knowledge and Learning Exchange Group, headed up by Professor Anna Whittaker. I’d like to thank my colleagues for their help with the presentation. At the time of recording this is what we thought about physical activity and COVID-19, although it is a very fast moving area. I’m also going to focus specifically on adult physical activity in Scotland as it would be a bit too much to cover in the time if we looked at the wider population. What I am going to be talking about today is the background to physical activity and how it has changed and why during COVID-19.

Physical activities are any bodily movements produced by skeletal muscle that results in energy expenditure. As you can see, physical activity covers a broad range of activities. This is an activity intensity spectrum here moving from sedentary where we’re sitting, not doing a lot of activity into light activity such as pottering around the house, into harder activity such as walking and cycling into very kind of vigorous activity. So it covers a broad range of movement. Physical activity is very important for our physical and mental health. People who are physically active live longer and healthier lives. It helps improve our sleep, maintain a healthy weight, improves our quality of life, but also reduces our chances of having significant diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. We should be looking at doing about 150 minutes of moderate intensity, physical activity per week. That’s activity that makes us breathe harder and feel warmer, but still able to hold a conversation. Or 75 minutes of more vigorous activity, so activity where we’re breathing much faster and finding it more difficult to talk. Or we can do a combination of both of these intensities. We also need to look at building our strength on two days a week, such as going to the gym or doing yoga, minimizing the time that we spend sedentary and looking, especially for older adults, at improving our balance.

Before COVID-19, about 34 percent of Scottish adults were not meeting the physical activity guidelines. This has stayed constant now for quite some time. Men are more likely to be more physically active than women. People from the least deprived areas are more likely to be active than those from the most deprived. And as we get older, physical activity significantly declines. So those who are younger are more physically active than those who are older.

So then obviously COVID-19 happened and we went into lockdown in the UK, so exercise was named as one of only four reasons that we were allowed to leave the house. On a daily basis, the government had been promoting exercise as something that’s going to improve our physical and mental well-being and something that has been encouraged. So what effect has this had on physical activity? Credit here to Jack Martin, one of our researchers in the group, who looked at Transport Scotland data. So some things we looked at is how cycling has changed during this time. So the blue chart, the blue graphs here show how is the cycling was before lockdown and the red is what’s happened over the lockdown period. So as you can see, cycling has increased during this time. It’s actually got to a point much higher than it was before COVID-19 started. And reasons for this are probably related to people cycling to get to work who don’t want to use public transport anymore, and having a lot quieter roads because the cars aren’t there, so people are much more able to get out, be active, but also probably it’s been driven by people’s leisure time physical activity: people who’ve maybe been furloughed, who have got more time, working from home, and want to go out and get some physical activity. Cycling is an ideal way to see a wider area. It’d be a legitimate reason for you to leave your home. So it’s probably quite a desirable form of activity at the moment. Again, looking at the same kind of data, but looking at walking. In Scotland, walking decreased in that first week of lockdown, then steadily started to increase again to levels just as it was before lockdown. The reason for this is probably because it decreased initially, because we went into lockdown, a lot of people weren’t actually walking to work anymore. They weren’t working, walking to get to public transport etc. And the increases has probably been a result again of leisure time walking, so people walking as their form of exercise during the day. Though it hasn’t increased to that much more than it was before.

It’s also been a change in how physical activity has been delivered and being used. So there’s been an online revolution and where fitness classes such as ones from the University of Stirling and Active Stirling, our local leisure provider, have a full range of fitness classes online with a schedule where you can go and take part fitness classes in your own home. Another quite popular one has been the Joe Wicks PE sessions, which have been happening every day. I looked at some of the views on YouTube for Joe Wicks and you’re talking about 6.5 million people who took part in the first session, but on average, it’s kind of decreased to about a million people per session who have been watching.

There’s also been changes to where we’re taking part in physical activity. So the first graph here, this is coming from the Garmin data, which is an activity tracker. Looking at the Garmin data from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the U.K., indoor running activity in this first graph has gone up in the two countries, Italy and Spain, were lockdown was really tight, and in other countries such as the U.K., indoor activity of running has decreased potentially because of the gym closures and people not being able to run inside so much. On the other hand, outdoor running has increased in the U.K. and in Germany and decreased Spain and Italy. However, stair climbing in Spain specifically has increased largely because of physiotherapists in Spain who recommended stair climbing as a way of maintaining muscle mass in the lower legs. It’s been something that’s been actively promoted over there and you can see that in some of the data here.

But there’s is a bit of a caveat with all of this: we can look at this kind of absolute level of physical activity and see what’s happening with cycling and walking, but I think there’s going to be significant contextual factors for individuals that will influence physical activity. So for example, in my situation, I’m at home now with two kids who used to go to childcare, when I could be physically active. I’ve got a husband at home who is supporting front line workers, so he’s very busy at work. So I’m actually not doing as much work as I was before, so I’m reducing the time I spend sitting, but I am going out an awful lot with the kids and I’m going out to do my own physical activity. So all in all, my physical activity has increased. I’ve got a garden and I’ve got good outdoor spaces to go and get access to without a lot of people around. It’s going to make a difference depending also on someone’s age, gender, physical activity history, their outdoor access space, size of their home etc. to what physical activity they can actually do.

There’s also been some other potential positives as a result of the COVID-19 for physical activity. I have never in my life has seen a situation where the government has promoted physical activity on a daily basis. Obviously from my point of view, this has been a very positive thing. Physical activity for some people is now seen as a treat or a privilege. It’s a great chance to kind of get out the house for legitimate reason. There has been more funding put into active travel. So the Scottish Government puts in £10 million to support pop-up active travel infrastructure such as putting in more cycleways and making the pathways wider for people to be active. And there’s been lots of initiatives, for example, in Milan and New York, about people reclaiming the streets from cars, so reclaiming them for pedestrian usage. Looking at positive things to do with climate change is also something that’s come out as a beneficial aspect of COVID-19. However, there’s more research needed in this area and there’s been lots of surveys launched to look at some differences that have occurred in physical activity.

So our SPARKLE group has been funded by the government, the Scottish Government to investigate the impact of social distancing on older adults, specifically related to their physical activity. So we’re going to be launching a survey very soon, looking for older adults to come and take part and look at their physical activity levels.

Some final thoughts. Physical activity is very likely to have changed as a result of COVID-19. But how it has changed is going to be a much more complicated picture than just looking at whether physical activity has increased, decreased or stayed the same. There’s going be domains of physical activity that have changed. Some people might have been in the gym before, but now they’re exercising at home so their intensity has maybe changed, or the setting is maybe change, but their actual physical activity might not have done so. There’s going to be a lot more interesting, contextual factors here that we need to take into account when we’re looking at changes in physical activity. People specific circumstances to do with the space in their house and outdoor access is also going to be key in looking at if people have been physically active or not.

Specific research is needed in this area, but what I would say is that the research has to be for a reason. We need to look at what COVID-19 can maybe teach us for the longer term in regards to physical activity. So it’s not just that it’s changed physical activity, but asking “are there some longer term lessons here maybe to do with using online resources to help socially isolated older adults be more active in the longer term?” We need to look at the ‘so what factor’. There’s obviously been positives as well for physical activity on a political and environmental level, but whether any of these positive changes will remain is very much unclear. So is physical activity still going to be a priority area promoted by government alongside these positive messages, on a regular basis? Is the public perception of physical activity just going to go back to being something that we have to try and seek out, something that we have to do to be healthy, or is it still going to be seen as a privilege? Are they still going to be more funding opportunities for wider pathways and more active travel ,so we can try and keep car usage down and allow people to go out and be physically active on their bikes? Or is it just going to be the case of when everything goes back to normal, car use is going to return to that same level? And, are we going to have more time to be physically active? A lot of people have had time off from work and have maybe taken advantage of this chance to be physically active. So it will be interesting to look at some of these messages over the longer term. So thank you very much for listening. If you have any questions here are my contact details, if you’d like to get in touch.

Dr Gemma Ryde, May 2020

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