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While the question of whether we’re yet living in a “post-pandemic” world may be up for debate, we’ve moved beyond the emergency phase and can now begin examining the new normal that COVID-19 left behind. When it comes to physical activity and exercise, the pandemic caused seismic shifts in the fitness industry, which was built on a foundation of people gathering to move together in a shared space as they pursued their health and fitness goals.

Strong, enthusiastic women high-fiving in gym

(Getty Images)

Once gathering and sharing space became impossible, businesses and professionals got creative in finding new ways to serve their existing customers and to find new ones, primarily by moving their services outdoors and online.

If you’re looking to begin a fitness routine or hoping to jumpstart your existing workout regimen, be sure to explore what’s available both locally and online. You may just find that you have access to more options than ever before.

Why Movement Is Important

As the reality of the duration and severity of the pandemic set in, people began to move for different reasons. A survey published by Mindbody at the beginning of 2022 asked more than 16,000 Americans about their wellness habits and found that people seem to be more cognizant of the need to prioritize and take responsibility for their health.

In addition, people tend to have a broadened and more holistic outlook when it comes to health. Wellness today includes mental, physical and spiritual health. Interestingly, when people were asked to rate those three dimensions of wellness, “mental wellness” was deemed most important. And 77% of those people say that being physically active helps their mental health.

Some of the most fascinating information to come from the survey is peoples’ top reasons for exercising. Comparing pre-pandemic numbers to those numbers gathered toward the end of 2021 shows shifts in the “why” behind changes in exercise trends.

Top reasons people exercised pre-pandemic:

  1. Control weight (35%).
  2. Feel good (33%).
  3. Live a long and healthy life (32%).

Top reasons people exercised in late 2021:

  1. Reduce stress (43%).
  2. Feel better mentally (43%).
  3. Look better physically (39%).

The Benefits of Physical Activity 

People began thinking more about stress management and mental health during the social isolation the pandemic forced upon us all. So, how does physical activity impact mental health?

  • Produces new brain cells. Being physically active elevates the production of neurotransmitters that can stimulate the production of new brain cells.  
  • Improves brain function. Learning how to do new things – including new types of physical activities – can improve cognition and mental acuity.  
  • Helps with self-image. Being physically active can boost your self-esteem by offering a sense of accomplishment and success, which has a direct effect on your mental health. 
  • Provides a break from busy routines. Taking some time to do something for your own physical and mental well-being is essential. Many people with anxiety or depression use exercise as a positive coping mechanism. 
  • Encourages positive social interaction. Being physically active as part of a group is an opportunity to connect, make friends and feel like part of a positive and supportive community. 
  • Improves long-term brain health. In addition to improving mood and reducing feelings of anxiety, physical activity can reduce the risk of depression and of developing dementia.
  • Positively impacts sleep quality. Being physically active can improve sleep quality, which is vital, as insufficient sleep has been linked to the development of many chronic diseases and conditions, as well elevated stress levels and weight gain.

Of course, the impact that physical activity has on physical health is overwhelmingly positive as well, as it affects just about every element of your overall well-being.

The physical benefits of activity shift over the course of the lifespan. Children and adolescents will benefit from maintenance of healthy body weight and improved academic performance, while active adults will have a reduced risk of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and a number of types of cancer. At any point in your life, starting or progressing a physical activity routine can improve your health and lifestyle in any number of ways.

Physical Activity and COVID-19

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated information about people who are at increased risk of becoming very sick from COVID-19 due to having one or more health conditions. Included on that list of health conditions, alongside cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, is physical inactivity.

According to the CDC, “People who do little or no physical activity are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19 than those who are physically active.”

Physical Activity Positivity

It’s important that we also view physical activity in a positive sense, not simply as a means of avoiding negative outcomes in our lives. Physical activity is not simply about preventing disease or reducing symptoms; it’s also about enhancing quality of life and living longer, more fulfilling and happier lives.

However, physical activity alone is not enough, as a healthy lifestyle involves a number of behaviors that all individuals can incorporate into their daily lives. The key is to find an activity you enjoy and get moving – whether that’s working out in your local gym, joining a gardening club or taking an online dance class. It should come as no surprise that enjoyment is a key factor in whether we stick to our programs over the long haul, so don’t be afraid to get out there and try new things.

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