Americans have become far more sedentary over the past two years, and that’s changing how we view what constitutes a workout.
Of all the relationships that have been totally upended since the beginning of the pandemic, the most surprising one might be our relationship with our own physical body. The majority of people who can do their job remotely have done so for the better part of the past two years, and Americans’ average daily steps dropped by 20 percent, according to one observational study from 2020. This was likely owing, in part, to the lack of a commute into work (even for car commuters, a walk from a parking garage is more steps than rolling out of bed to your kitchen table). That plunge in physical activity has now pushed many of us to conceive of exercise not as a dreaded addition to our busy schedule, but as an integral part of our life.
Emily Kuykendall, a Philadelphia-based HR professional, told me she never used to intentionally exercise, because she struggled with the fact that as a larger woman, working out was often framed as a way to change her body. She would take lunchtime walks around her job’s sprawling campus to break up the day, but that was the extent of anything resembling physical exertion. Then she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and when her office life moved to a screen because of social-distancing measures, she became even more sedentary. That confluence of events allowed her an opportunity to think about how and why she wanted to exercise, and what it could do for her health. For the first time in her life, Kuykendall, who’s 27, said she began to think of intentional movement as fundamental to her well-being, and not about weight loss.
The people I spoke with agreed that the pandemic has helped change their relationship to exercise, which previously felt like a chore that they were always failing to turn into a habit. Kuykendall started to go on walks and take yoga classes on Zoom, and the more she moved, the more she wanted to move. She told me she begins by asking herself: “What do I want to do? Do I want to go for a walk? Dance to some music for five minutes? Stretch? Nap? All of those things are taking care of my body and listening to what it specifically wants right now.” The mental reframing that all kinds of activities (not just intense cardio, for instance) can yield health benefits is one of the positive outcomes of working from home, says Marissa Goldberg, who consults with companies on the best ways to implement remote work for employees. Pre-pandemic, people might have seen the opportunities to fit exercise into the day as limited. But when work moved online for many—at the same time that gyms across the country closed—the options for what we perceived as exercise expanded. For her part, Goldberg sets a 30-minute timer every day to clean, finish a to-do list of errands, take a midday walk to clear her head, or dance to music.
Getting Americans to exercise in general has been a challenge for decades. “We only have enough time or energy or attention to pursue so many goals at a time,” David Conroy, a kinesiology and human-development professor at Penn State University, told me. “And physical activity, because rewards are oftentimes very delayed, many people just don’t value those as much as some of the other outcomes that would happen if we pursued other goals.” So a shift in perception that leads people to incorporate even small amounts of movement every day is still a win. If you view working from home as an opportunity to shape your day to your own liking, Goldberg told me, it can actually lead to a physically healthier self.
In her book No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, Michelle Segar, a health coach and scientist who studies health behavior, wrote that getting people to stay physically active is about “understanding how to choose and enjoy daily movement, of almost any kind, as long as it makes them feel good.” When people recognize that a daily walk makes them feel great and is also satisfying, they are far more likely to choose to keep doing it, and even seek out more movement. Attempting to stick to a gym routine you dread because you’re “supposed” to or because you want to lose weight is something that, for most Americans, almost never garners immediate or lasting results. Consequently, many exercise goals are easily abandoned.
Smartwatches, for which sales have jumped during the pandemic, have played a part in reconceiving exercise by rewarding people for less-strenuous movement. Fitbit, for instance, helped popularize the 10,000-steps-a-day goal and will notify you if you haven’t walked at least 250 steps each hour. And the Apple Watch will note whether you’ve “closed three rings” each day by hitting a certain calories-burned goal, a steps goal, and a standing-time goal. Those are the kinds of small achievements that Eli Diaz, a 28-year-old voice actor in Los Angeles, has had to embrace. She used to get regular exercise by biking or walking her wife to work a couple of miles away. But she told me via email that she has felt “incredibly sedentary” over the past two years, which has been a bit of a shock to the system. At her most desperate, Diaz resorted to walking in circles around her living-room couch in short bursts during the day. She said she still can’t always exercise like she did pre-pandemic, as she’s immunocompromised and COVID-19 is an ever-present risk. But she now sees all movement as valuable: “I’m grateful at this point that I can exercise at all.”
Remote work is here to stay for at least some of us, and this mindset about exercise could last beyond the current moment. Pandemic-era working from home isn’t “normal” working from home, after all, Goldberg said, and many people she’s talked with are feeling depressed and lethargic. She tends to recommend that clients start tracking their movement so they can see that when they didn’t stand up for hours or walk more than a few hundred steps a day, that was likely part of the reason for their mood. In that way, remote work can kick-start a process of discovering how important movement really is, and figuring out how you’d like to address that need. “There’s a bunch of emotional and mental and physical energy saved, being in your own environment,” she said. “It’s almost like finding yourself again.” Perhaps now we can collectively redefine what counts as exercise. As parts of our life continue to be mediated through a screen, moving our body with intention can serve as a good reminder that we have one.