What’s Happening to Your Fitness During COVID-19?

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COVID-19 has changed life as we know it. Its impacts have been widespread and significant with no corner of the world unaffected.

At the time of writing (19 April 2020), there were over 2.2 million confirmed cases worldwide with 156,000 deaths. The final tallies will be significantly higher.

In the United States, over 22 million people have applied for unemployment over the last four weeks, erasing nearly 10 years of job creation gains. An estimated 21% of small businesses will close their doors for good within 30 days of forced quarantine.

Parts of Europe have been hit just as hard. Spain’s unemployment rate is 20.8%, a whopping 57.5% higher than pre-pandemic forecasts. And we all know the absolute carnage this virus has caused in Italy.

China saw its economy shrink by 6.8% from January through March, marking the first time in nearly 50 years they’ve experienced economic decline.

Most countries have adopted some form of self-quarantine or social distancing measures while temporarily shutting down non-essential businesses. Daily routines have been upended and hundreds of millions of people feel trapped at home.

Modifying our lifestyles is a small price to pay to #flattenthecurve and loosen COVID-19’s stranglehold on our global society. That said, it’s important to acknowledge that seemingly simple things like maintaining a regular fitness routine can have a profound impact on both our physical and mental wellbeing, especially when many of us are now cooped up and isolated.

In an effort to understand how people’s exercise routines have been, and will be, impacted, we asked 1,098 people to tell us about their experiences, opinions and intentions for their physical fitness during COVID-19.

These are the results.

The survey used a convenience sample from online communities

This survey was conducted from March 24 through April 13, 2020 with 1,098 responses. Those responses came from six different online communities:

The vast majority of respondents came from Reddit, which has an audience that skews young and male. These communities are also intended for people who have an interest in physical fitness in one way or another (more on that in the next sections).

We collected demographic data from all respondents and results have been broken out by age, gender, and location (when sample size allowed) to show as many different cuts of the data as possible.

Mostly young males in North America responded to the survey

Unsurprisingly, given Reddit’s aforementioned demographics, an overwhelming 75.2% of respondents identified as male. We tried to get permission from Reddit’s largest women-only sub, r/xxfitness, but they didn’t respond. While more than 263 responses from women would have been great, especially for further segmentation by age and country, we were still able to observe some fascinating trends.

Less than 1% of respondents responded as “Other” or “Prefer Not To Say.”

The majority of respondents fell in the 21-29 age group with 77.8% under 30 years of age. Only 3.9% were 40 or older, so this survey really speaks to the habits and opinions of a younger crowd.

And here’s a look at age broken down by gender. Proportionately, the survey’s male respondents skewed younger than its female respondents.

In terms of location, nine countries had at least 10 respondents with the United States (55.6%), Canada (11.7%), and the United Kingdom (7.2%) combining for 74.5% of all responses.

In total, we had responses from 65 countries on six continents.

While some of the following analysis looks at responses by country, we also grouped countries into regions:

  • United States
  • Canada
  • Europe
  • Rest of World

We mostly heard from people who are healthy, fit, and love their workouts

To understand our respondents a little better, we wanted to get a sense of people’s baselines.

First, we asked about their general health and fitness. Overall, people were very bullish on their general health with 67.1% of men and 66.6% of women describing their general health as either “Very Good” or “Excellent.”

Given that the vast majority of respondents came from fitness-focused groups on Reddit, this isn’t exactly surprising. We were self-selecting for people who read and/or participate in fitness communities.

Interestingly, people felt their general health was better than their general fitness with 44.5% of men and 44.5% of women describing their general fitness as “Very Good” or “Excellent.”

Nearly everyone described their workout as at least “Somewhat Important” with 75.5% of men and 72.2% of women viewing their workout routine as “Very Important.” Again, not exactly surprising given we’re self-selecting for people who are engaging with fitness communities.

Does this bias cloud the analysis? It’s unlikely. The goal of this survey is to assess how COVID-19 has affected people for whom fitness is a big part of their lives. After all, if fitness isn’t important to you, then COVID-19 probably hasn’t impacted your fitness routine all that much.

Let’s look at the same data cut by age. Across all age groups, at least 71% of respondents described their workout routine as “Very Important.” The 50+ group led the way at 83.3%, but there were only 12 total respondents in that group. 

We’ve established that respondents mostly believe they’re in “Very Good” shape (or “Excellent”) and nearly 3-in-4 view their workout as “Very Important,” so how often are people working out? 

The plurality among all respondents was 5 days per week at 29.7% for both men and women. An incredible 96.2% of men and 94.7% of women reported working out at least 3 days per week.

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Building strength was the most common goal

One of the goals of this survey was to see how people’s workout routines have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. To do that, we need to start with what people usually do.

We offered people five choices for workout type, plus a freeform field, and asked them to select as many different types of workouts as they regularly perform:

  • Moderate Exercise (such as brisk walking)
  • Strength Training
  • Flexibility
  • Intense Cardio
  • HIIT

After analyzing the responses, we grouped everything into four categories:

  • Moderate Exercise (same as above)
  • Strength Training & Bodyweight (same as above plus self-reported bodyweight and calisthenics exercises)
  • Flexibility (same as above)
  • Intense Cardio (same as above plus HIIT and self-reported running and CrossFit)

When we looked at responses by age, a few trends emerged.

“Strength Training & Bodyweight” was the most popular workout type but declined from the under 21 group (90.4%) through the 40-49 group (83.9%).

The other three types of exercises all increased with age:

  • “Intense Cardio” rose from 55.0% to 90.3% (a 64.2% increase)
  • “Flexibility” rose from 31.4% to 51.6% (a 64.3% increase)
  • “Moderate Exercise” rose from 21.5% to 35.5% (a 65.1% increase)

Overwhelmingly, younger people focused more on strength training while older age groups reported more well-rounded fitness routines.

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A pandemic won’t stop people from working out but it may change the way they workout

If people love working out but agree with their gym’s decision to close, how important do they feel working out during the COVID-19 pandemic is?

Thus far we’ve found that 74.7% of respondents view working out as “Very Important” with another 23.9% reporting it’s “Somewhat Important.” We’ve also seen that 57.9% of respondents report their gym has closed with a massive 95.9% supporting that decision.

As it turns out, both men and women think it’s more important to work out now:

  • Men: 82.8% say it’s “Very Important” now versus 75.5% before (9.7% increase)
  • Women: 82.1% say it’s “Very Important” now versus 72.2% before (13.7% increase)

This entire increase is a shift from “Somewhat Important” to “Very Important” with “Unimportant” remaining the same both before and during the pandemic.

Finally, our survey asked whether our respondents would do more or less of the following exercises (or make no changes at all):

  • Moderate Exercise (such as brisk walking)
  • Strength Training
  • Flexibility
  • Intense Cardio
  • HIIT

Respondents were allowed to choose multiple changes to their workout. Overall, the results were fascinating, though unsurprising.

Strength training is being abandoned in favour of other kinds of workouts

“Strength Training” was the only workout type that saw a net decline with 19.1% of respondents planning on doing more strength training at home while 43.1% planning on doing less. We suspect this has to do with the decreased accessibility of strength training equipment, including free weights and racks, and machines such as leg presses and lat pulldowns. Many respondents may only have access to this kind of equipment at commercial gyms, and therefore have no choice but to do less strength training. 

Similarly, with the explosion in demand for home/garage gym equipment, many retailers are completely sold out of free weights, power and squat racks, and home gyms (i.e., ‘all-in-one’ cable weight machines). There are also lengthy shipping delays for those lucky enough to get their hands on this equipment. So, while those who typically do strength training may have intended to continue with it at home, perhaps they’re simply unable to purchase the necessary equipment.

This clearly speaks to the significant impact COVID-19 is having on how people work out. 

We’re choosing to do less intense exercise it seems

If people are building strength less, then what are they doing more of? Well:

  • “Intense Cardio” saw a net gain of 6.3%. However, it saw a net decline among women of 5.7%. An interesting result considering cardio tends to be the preferred type of workout for women (this is a generalization; plenty of women do a variety of training).
  • “HIIT” saw a net gain of 17.5%. This suggests that some people are looking for shorter, more efficient workouts. It may also reflect the constraints many of us now face in the amount of space we have to exercise (home and garage gyms are often pressed for space), and our access to equipment (some may only have an exercise bike or treadmill at home, both of which lend themselves well to HIIT).
  • “Moderate Exercise” saw a net gain of 24.0%. This is one of the more fascinating results, as it may again point to the serious impact COVID-19 is having on our overall health. While moderate exercise is certainly beneficial, a trend toward less intense workouts may see general levels of health and fitness decrease, at least among the survey population.
  • “Flexibility” saw a net gain of 45.5%. This is another interesting result and may be explained by necessity and opportunity. Flexibility-based workouts like yoga, pilates** and stretching can be completed in relatively confined spaces with minimal equipment, and are therefore easier to do at home than other forms of exercise. It’s also easy to be guided in these kinds of exercises by YouTube and other streamed video content. This is also a somewhat worrying trend towards less intense forms of exercise, which could see our survey population reap fewer physical and psychological benefits from their workouts than usual.

**Apologies to the yoga and pilates aficionados; we do recognize that these are much more holistic training modalities and reducing them to being just ‘flexibility-based’ doesn’t do them justice.

Grouped by gender, men were 24.7% more likely to incorporate strength training into their routine (92.9% to 74.5%) while women were far more likely to incorporate the other three types of workouts. Specifically, women were:

  • 67.8% more likely to incorporate “Moderate Exercise” (43.3% to 25.8%)
  • 59.7% more likely to incorporate “Flexibility” (58.6% to 36.7%)
  • 53.1% more likely to incorporate “Intense Cardio” (89.4% to 58.4%)

Again, you can see a preference for lower intensity forms of exercise. This is arguably the most significant finding from the survey, at least for the respondents. 

Next to a well-balanced diet and avoiding negative health-related behaviours like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, exercise is perhaps the best thing we can do for our health. COVID-19, therefore, poses a threat to our health not only through its action as an illness, but also by influencing us to do less beneficial forms of exercise. The negative flow on effects this may have on things like personal relationships, academic performance, and work productivity are significant individuals and societies.

It bears repeating that this pandemic is dangerous in so many ways. 

Defy this shitty pandemic!

It’s all good and well to point out that we may be negatively impacting our health by choosing less intense forms of exercise, but what should we actually do about it?

This survey has asked about what you are choosing to do. It may seem like the obvious answer, but you can choose to transition to vigorous exercise alternatives rather than more moderate forms of exercise. 

Going for walks and doing flexibility workouts can be augmented with some calisthenics-based HIIT or vigorous cardio like running or cycling (either ‘real-world’ or stationary).

If you’re pressed for ideas or specific workouts, places like YouTube have been flooded with isolation exercise videos. A quick Google or YouTube search for ‘isolation workouts’ should produce plenty of great options.

We collected some other thoughts about COVID-19, FYI…

Let’s do a recap of our survey population:

  • 75.2% male
  • 77.8% under 30 years old
  • 55.6% from the United States
  • 74.5% from one of the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom
  • 66.9% believe their general health is either “Very Good” or “Excellent”
  • 44.5% believe their general fitness is either “Very Good” or “Excellent”
  • 29.7% workout 5 days per week and 95.8% workout at least 3 days per week
  • Younger people are more likely to place a strong emphasis on strength training
  • Older people are more likely to have more balanced workout routines
  • Men are more likely to incorporate strength training into their routine
  • Women are considerably more likely to incorporate other forms of exercise

Outside of their fitness routines, we also wanted to know what they thought of the current COVID-19 pandemic and their country’s social distancing measures.

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Most people are concerned about the virus

Next, we asked people how concerned they were about the current COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s look at their responses cut a few different ways.

First, by gender. Overall, women seem to be more concerned about the current pandemic and were 10.1% more likely to be at least “Somewhat Concerned” (96.9% to 87.7%). Men were three times as likely to respond as “Very Unconcerned,” 2.4% to 0.8%.

Next we looked at COVID-19 concern versus self-reported fitness levels. There were just two fitness levels where “Very Concerned” outnumbered “Somewhat Concerned”:

  • “Poor”
  • “Excellent”

Obviously, opposite ends of the spectrum.

It’s hard to know if that’s due to sample size or whether that’s actually meaningful. Given that the gap between “Somewhat” (yellow) and “Very” (red) was largest in the middle fitness level and narrowed moving outward, there may be something here.

(Look at the yellow and red bars in the chart below and decide for yourself.) 

To increase sample sizes, we grouped the four COVID-19 concern levels into two buckets:

  • Concerned: “Somewhat Concerned” and “Very Concerned”
  • Unconcerned: “Somewhat Unconcerned” and “Very Unconcerned”

When viewed this way, the lowest percentage of “Concerned” responses came from the group of people who viewed their general fitness as “Excellent.”

Next, we looked at COVID-19 concern by continent and cut it the same two ways:

  • All four discrete categories from “Very Unconcerned” to “Very Concerned” 
  • The grouped “Unconcerned” and “Concerned” view

Overall, there’s a ton of concern around the globe, but there’s one place where people seem significantly less concerned: Europe. Only 26.2% of Europeans reported they were “Very Concerned” about COVID-19 compared to 45.3% of people from North America and 42.9% of people from Asia. People from Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) described themselves as “Very Concerned” just 28.6% of the time.

Of note, the sample size drops off after North America and Europe.

When we look at general “Unconcerned” versus “Concerned” we see the same story. More than twice as many Europeans reported they were “Unconcerned” (18.6%) compared to the next highest group (North America, 7.8%).

Which European countries are fueling this relatively high 18.6% “Unconcerned” group? Two countries had a decent number of responses with high “Unconcerned” rates:

  • United Kingdom: 16.5% “Unconcerned” on 79 responses
  • Germany: 25.0% “Unconcerned” on 36 responses

The Netherlands (21.4% on 14 responses) has a small sample size but is worth mentioning. Sweden had just 6 people respond, but 4 of them are “Unconcerned” with just 2 “Concerned.” At the time of this writing, Sweden has 150 deaths per 1 million people compared to 116 per 1 million for the United States, 228 per 1 million for the United Kingdom, and 429 per 1 million for Spain. (Source)

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Social distancing measures are mostly seen as too relaxed or just right

Social distancing was a foreign concept just a few short weeks ago. Now it’s part of our global lexicon as Google search trends data clearly shows:

To that end, we asked respondents what they thought of their country’s social distancing measures, giving them five choices:

  • “Way Too Relaxed”
  • “A Little Relaxed”
  • “Just Right”
  • “A Little Extreme”
  • “Way Too Extreme”

To alleviate sample size concerns and make the results more digestible, we grouped those responses into three buckets:

  • Too Relaxed: “Way Too Relaxed” and “A Little Relaxed”
  • Just Right: “Just Right”
  • Too Extreme: “Way Too Extreme” and “A Little Extreme”

North America was the only continent where the “Too Relaxed” group outnumbered the others, and it wasn’t even close. An incredible 57.5% of people from North America (primarily the United States) felt their country’s social distancing measures were either “A Little Relaxed” or “Way Too Relaxed.” The next closest continent was Oceania at 45.7% with just 28.5% of Europeans and 32.7% of Asians reporting they felt social distancing measures were too relaxed.

Overall, 49.2% of respondents felt their country’s social distancing measures were “Too Relaxed” while 43.0% responded with “Just Right” with the remaining 7.8% responding with “Too Extreme.”

We also wanted to look at differences by gender, so we grouped respondents into four categories:

  • United States
  • Canada
  • Europe
  • Rest of World 

Overall, women were 16.4% more likely to believe social distancing measures were too relaxed (54.7% to 47.0%). The gap was narrower in the United States where women were 10.8% more likely to believe social distancing measures were too relaxed (64.8% to 58.5%).

When we look by age, there were two age groups most likely to say that their country’s social distancing measures were “Too Extreme”: under 21 and 21-29. Combined, those two age groups were 77.6% more likely to respond with either “A Little Extreme” or “Too Extreme” (8.6% to 4.9%).

Another fascinating view is to break down opinions on social distancing by self-reported general health. According to the results, the better you view your overall health, the more likely you are to think that current social distancing measures are either “Just Right” or “Too Extreme.”

(This might be my favorite takeaway from this whole survey.)

Interestingly, we don’t see the same clear trend when we compare people’s opinions on social distancing to their self-reported general fitness.

These are trying times for everyone as we try to find some normalcy in our day-to-day routines while remaining responsible citizens.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to complete this survey. We were pleased with the overall number of responses and we couldn’t have done it without your support. Thanks!

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