No gym, no problem: Safely bringing fitness to your home with these tips
By NICKI KARIMIPOUR, PHD
The holidays are a time for sharing family recipes, memories and sweet treats. However, with those traditions usually comes additional weight gain and general lack of exercise. Coupled this with the fact that most of North America is still under varying levels of restrictions due to the coronavirus, and it’s no wonder it’s so hard to develop and sustain an exercise regimen during these times.
In this article, I will explain why it’s more important than ever to prioritize your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing, as well as provide tips and strategies for maximizing at-home workouts, discuss gym equipment that is low-cost or free, and provide ways to think outside of the box when it comes to working out safely at home.
Mental, Spiritual and Physical Benefits of Staying Active
It’s no secret that staying active can have multiple benefits for the mind and the body. Holidays are typically stressful on their own, leading people to indulge more than usual in food, snacks and alcohol. Nutritionally, many of us are eating foods we typically wouldn’t, such as those that are rich, high in fat, sugar, and/or sodium.
Research indicates people can gain weight during this time – for example, researchers conducted a study of 200 adults and found that the average participant gained a pound during the holidays (Yanovski et al., 2000). Another study found that the average weight gain was less than two pounds but could vary widely depending on the person (Schoeller, 2014). This research doesn’t account for individuals who engage in emotional eating or binge-eating episodes, which can be worsened by experiencing negative feelings (Gianini, White, & Masheb, 2013).
In addition, people have been working out less due to demands at home and work, as well as childcare and caregiving responsibilities, to name just a few.
“On the population level, we have seen a significant decline in physical activity. People were most affected during the first stay-at-home orders, especially if living in urban areas,” said Nicole Fearnbach, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center. “Physical activity levels slowly increased as restrictions were lifted. We’ve also seen that people substituted activities like gardening and walking in place of gym-based workouts. It’s great to see people find ways to keep moving.”
Exercise for Reducing Anxiety and Stress
In addition, the global pandemic we are collectively experiencing contributes to our stress levels by heightening anxiety.
“We know that people who have higher fitness levels are at lower risk for most diseases, and we believe that extends to COVID-19. Exercise also helps with maintaining mental health, which many are struggling with due to the pandemic,” Fearnbach added.
Indeed, mental health has been a growing concern during this time – and these types of anxiety or stress-related responses can manifest in different forms. For example, many people are reporting various incidents of dental damage such as teeth grinding, increased cavities, gum disease and cracking of teeth during COVID-19 (Breen, 2020). According to a survey sent to dentists in the United States from the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute, there has been an uptick in these dental issues, which can be attributed to people’s increased stress levels.
It’s not just teeth that are taking the brunt of our stress – it’s our hair, too. People are reporting greater hair loss during the pandemic (Pattani, 2020). In addition, they are reporting more physical issues for which there is no medical cause, like headaches and stomach problems. These can be stress related.
“A lot of the stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic can actually be mitigated with exercise,” said Samoon Ahmad, M.D., who is the Founder of the Integrative Center for Wellness in New York City, New York. “Study after study has shown that even moderate exercise has benefits on mood, sleep, and muscle tension, and that it can promote important neurochemicals like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is strongly associated with improved cognitive function and overall mental health. Exercise also gives you time to focus on something that isn’t related to the stresses of the pandemic, the election, or the holidays.”
Insomnia, trouble going to sleep and staying asleep, lower levels of sleep quality, and reports of bizarre dreams have also been common during this time. During the summer, 36% of Americans reported trouble going to sleep (Villano, 2020). In addition, prescriptions for sleep medications increased by 15% early in the pandemic (Express Scripts, 2020). Disruptions to sleep can lead to weight gain because lack of sleep interferes with our hormones that tell us when we feel full (Villano, 2020).
However, ensuring a good night’s sleep is important to maintaining an effective exercise routine.
“If you sleep poorly, you will end up not being able to get up and work out in the morning, you’ll be less motivated during the day because you feel lethargic, and you will probably feel even less motivated at night because all you want to do is go back to sleep,” Ahmad said. “How do you get better sleep? A better diet helps. I would recommend eating more leafy greens, fruits, and whole grains; eating fewer foods that contain a lot of starch or processed sugars; and drinking lots of water, but not before bed. I also would recommend against drinking any more than a moderate amount of alcohol or any caffeine late in the evening, napping during the day, and eating late meals. Perhaps most importantly, you should stop using any electronic device at least 30 minutes before you plan on going to sleep. Instead, you can read a book or a magazine, draw, listen to music, or even do some very light exercises,” he added.
Designing an At-Home Workout Routine
Putting together a workout routine that can be done at home, is easily modified and allows you to integrate some variety is key to ensuring you get an effective workout without getting bored in the process. Switching off high-intensity cardio with weight training can give you the results you need while also keeping you engaged.
Higher-intensity workouts that involve bouts of cardio help raise your heart rate, which has many benefits for the body including strengthening of the heart and improving its ability to pump blood effectively through the body. Engaging in cardio can also help you strengthen your immune system, which is important during flu season that coincides with the holidays (Marcin, 2020).
Other benefits of cardio include lower blood pressure, lower levels of LDL cholesterol (also known as “bad cholesterol”) and raising HDL cholesterol (also known as “good” cholesterol). Mixing up a little cardio into your at-home routine is easy – examples of heart-pumping activities include running, jogging, swimming, playing soccer, and even vigorous cleaning or gardening (Marcin, 2020). Involving your family in these activities can help make them part of a routine. When we develop routines, they become part of our day-to-day, and we are more likely to sustain them over time.
Rest days are also important, especially if you are weight training. Rest days allow your muscles to recover and aid in the muscle-building process by removing lactic acid buildup in the muscles, reducing soreness, and increasing blood flow (Chertoff, 2019). There are two types of recovery – active and passive. Active recovery refers to activities that are low intensity that you can do following an intense workout. Examples of these include cool downs after a workout, during interval or circuit training, and on a rest day when you do less strenuous physical activities such as stretching, yoga, tai chi, light walking or swimming (Chertoff, 2019). On the other hand, passive recovery refers to complete rest, like sitting or lying down. You should engage in passive recovery when you’re sore or in pain to allow your body time to rest adequately (Chertoff, 2019).
Integrating Low or No-Cost Equipment
The pandemic has undoubtedly shifted the way in which we exercise – whether that means where and how we exercise, how often, and with what equipment. Going “low-tech” with your equipment and only investing in machines you will use frequently is a good way to cut down on unnecessary products in your home or garage, but to also save money as well.
When it comes to machines, dusting off ones that you haven’t used in a while is a good first step – granted they are still functional. If not, I recommend investing in purchasing a machine you can commit to using regularly and that meets your needs. Multi-use machines such as treadmills, new-model stationary bikes and ellipticals can help you integrate cardio, weight training and resistance all in one session.
If you’re interested in using low or no-cost gym equipment that can be readily found at home, there are many options such as towels, cans, water jugs, and boxes to jump on. Towels can be used for resistance, cans and water jugs can be used as dumbbells and boxes can be used to create CrossFit-style training circuits outside or in your garage. For low cost equipment, you can use jump ropes, resistance bands, kettlebells, and dumbbells.
Other examples of workouts you can do at home simply involve your own bodyweight – and you can get a good full-body workout in the process. Many of these moves work multiple muscle groups at one time, making them a smart choice for those who like to be efficient. For chest and core exercises, you can start off by holding a plank for 15 seconds, working up to 30 seconds, and working up to holding the plank for a minute or more. Burpees and mountain climbers are not a fan-favorite, but they are effective. To work the glutes and hamstrings, try classic squats and donkey kicks, which can be done without any props. Just make sure to maintain proper form. For more workouts you can do without any equipment, click here.
Changing Formats and Going Digital
If you’re someone who needs the motivation, community and instruction of a fitness class to stay on track, you can use online modalities to achieve this. To address their clients’ fitness needs during the pandemic, local studios have pivoted to online classes.
“The idea of pivoting and teaching virtually did not seem overwhelming, but I had to really think about the camera lens, framing my body, and coming up with safe routines and transitions so clients could easily follow along,” said Myra Joy Veluz, MFA, who is a Holistic Educator and Master Teacher Trainer for Pop Physique studios located in San Marino, California. She teaches a variety of fitness classes including barre, spin, HIIT and dance conditioning. “I think correcting clients’ postural and overall body alignment has definitely been unique. For clients whose video cameras are on and constantly shifting, I take the time to give personalized cues to help them whereas for those who do not feel as comfortable, I will be sure to give generalized cues and shout outs so they know I am supporting them during their workout even in the digital space,” Veluz added.
In addition to in-person studios moving toward online classes, there are many fitness apps to choose from, many of which are free or low cost. The benefit of fitness apps includes the ability to access them from anywhere at any time, to choose the type of workout you’d like to do and for how long. Some are free, whereas some have a monthly fee – however, these fees may be significantly less than the cost of a gym or studio membership.
Fearnbach echoes this sentiment.
“Find something virtual. Trainers have spent a lot of time creating free or low-cost digital content to keep people active, including dance cardio, body weight training, and yoga classes,” she said. “These could be livestreamed on Zoom or pre-recorded on YouTube or fitness apps. If you have a video game console, this is also a great time to try exergaming. More resources are available on the American College of Sports Medicine website.”
Remaining Motivated through the Holiday Season
So, you’ve built your home gym, mapped out a fitness routine and feel confident about integrating regular exercise into the holiday months. The next step is to ensure you stay on track despite competing priorities such as family time, cooking, gift-buying, and self-care routines.
Varying your routine can help you keep up with your exercise regimen. Devoting certain days to cardio, certain days to weight training and certain days to rest or low-impact activities such as yoga or tai chi can help. With the holidays and additional stay-at-home orders, it can be an opportune time for doing chores and home improvements, which can also help you burn calories, engage in cardio and relax by focusing on the task at hand.
Another key to motivation is accountability. While you’re at home, you can leverage your family or housemates as workout and accountability partners. If you’re socially distancing, online communities can be great places to connect with likeminded individuals and find accountability partners (or starting your own).
“Try to find a workout buddy. It always helps to have someone to be active with and keep each other accountable. They could be in person or virtual,” Fearnbach said.
Finally, just remembering where you started and striving to be kind to yourself can be a gamechanger.
“Part of staying motivated is also giving yourself permission to be human and make mistakes because you can’t learn how to motivate yourself and what you need unless you have experienced a few mishaps,” Veluz said. “As an instructor, I think it is good practice to embody and live what you teach. This year has been hard, crazy, unpredictable (the list can continue) and two things that I have tried and shared with clients are to acknowledging small wins every day, and shifting one’s mindset to ‘yes, and.’ Many clients have been grateful to me for simply saying those things out loud in class.”
As the world around us continues to change rapidly due to COVID-19, exercise and mindfulness practices can be good ways to relieve stress – of which there seems to be plenty to go around. Using this time to set and reach new fitness goals using low or no-cost equipment, dusting off old machines or purchasing new ones, and leveraging online fitness communities and loved ones as accountability partners can help make a difference and lead to a healthier, more peaceful holiday season.
Author Bio: Nicki Karimpour, PHD
Contributor and Health Advisor
Dr. Nicki Karimipour is a communications expert and experienced researcher. She obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Health Communications from the University of Florida. She has previous experience in writing and editing for both print and online publications, and almost a decade of experience in teaching health writing, public health, and public relations at the undergraduate and graduate level. She is based in Los Angeles, California and currently works at the University of Southern California as a director of communications and clinical research. Follow her on Twitter: @NickiKPhD
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