Exercising Post COVID-19: The Importance of Social Fitness Activities
In January 2020, a mysterious new illness landed on the radar of global health authorities. Within a short 90 days, the U.S. government and the World Health Organization both declared COVID-19 an official emergency. We're only now emerging from two years of lockdowns during which many of us maintained social isolation and businesses were shut down. Athletic facilities and group fitness activities — including gyms and boot camps — were not spared from these lockdowns. With society reopening and social fitness activities once again possible, it's time to rediscover the benefits of group fitness and how to get back into an active, healthy fitness routine.
3 Types of Exercising That COVID-19 Shut Down
In general, any activity or business in which groups of people congregated in close quarters was targeted by lockdowns. Approximately 24 months later, the effects on the fitness community are startling.
In 2019, the global health and fitness association IHRSA reports that there were more than 40,000 gyms and fitness facilities in the U.S. By the summer of 2021, nearly a quarter of these studios and gyms were permanently shut down. The association points out that many of those closures happened in the first few months of the initial COVID-19 lockdown.
By 2022, that number had risen even higher with a double-digit increase in closures compared to 2021.
2. Martial Arts and Combat Sports
Combat sports like karate, judo, kung fu, and krav maga naturally involve close physical contact when training or competing. With social distancing measures often requiring six feet of space or more, that ruled out all hand-to-hand sports.
Beyond the permanent closures of many martial arts studios, there was also a significant impact on the mental health of those who practice combat sports. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, researchers found that:
- There was a significant drop in martial arts training immediately after gyms were locked down
- There was a significant increase in rates of stress, anxiety, and depression within the first month of combat sports athletes being unable to train at their studios or gyms
3. Workout Classes and Group Activities
Researchers found significant evidence of COVID-19 transmission in indoor workout classes and group activities. And while some personal trainers pivoted to outdoor workouts during warmer months of the year, most group classes were permanently shuttered for years. These included gymnastics, boot camps, yoga classes, high-intensity group classes like HIIT and CrossFit, and even dance classes.
How Social Fitness Activities Are Beneficial
While the COVID-19 lockdowns were intended to slow the spread of the pandemic, shuttering gyms and fitness classes was not without its negative repercussions. Peer-reviewed studies make it clear how important socializing and group fitness activities can be, and the positive impact that social fitness has on multiple aspects of your health and well-being.
1. Improved Mental Health
Psychologists have warned for decades that social isolation is not good for your mental health. The inverse is also true, especially as it relates to group workouts and social fitness activities.
While any type of regular physical activity is good for you, researchers compared the impacts of group fitness versus individual workouts on your mental well-being. They found that people who participated in group exercises experienced significant improvements in four key measures of wellness:
- Mental health (an improvement of nearly 13%)
- Physical health (24.8%)
- Emotional health (26%)
- Stress (a reduction of more than 26%)
In contrast, those who worked out solo for double the amount of time saw an 11% improvement in mental health but no significant change in the other three aspects of wellness. Of course, other studies do suggest that all forms of exercise benefit your mental health — the key finding in this recent report is that group fitness is that much more beneficial.
2. Increased Motivation
Do you ever feel like you're stuck in a rut? Can't quite work up the gumption to push yourself harder and further in the gym? Social fitness workouts may be the answer.
Psychological studies have found that we, as social beings, are strongly influenced by the healthy behaviors of those around us. Put simply, we emulate those we're in close contact with and seek their approval and validation. In the fitness context, you work out harder (and you perceive your physical effort as less intense, and therefore "easier" to maintain endurance) when you're surrounded by other people who are also pushing their limits and focusing on their fitness goals.
- Individuals who exercise alongside someone who they perceive as stronger, faster, or better than them boosted both their workout duration and workout intensity by a whopping 200%
- People who do a specific workout with a friend or partner, such as planks, are motivated to go longer compared to those who work out individually
3. Maintained Routine
Related to the above, optimal health and fitness isn't about fad diets or a quick workout fix. True health comes from a lifelong commitment to your workouts, your nutrition and supplements, and your routine. Yet if New Year's Eve resolutions are any indicator, most people struggle to stick with their fitness routine over the long term.
Joining a social fitness or group fitness class for exercising post-COVID-19 may be the answer. There's a social element of shame or self-consciousness if you know that your group will see that you're absent on a Monday morning, or that you aren't fully committed to a specific goal.
Additionally, there's the so-called Köhler effect — a psychological phenomenon where people change their behavior when they're part of a collective group compared to when they're alone. For instance:
- People who are overweight, but hang out with healthy friends, tend to lose more weight the more time they spend with each other
- More than 9 out of 10 people who join a weight-loss workout program with friends finish the program, while only 7 out of 10 people complete a weight-loss program when doing it solo
Rediscover Your Workout Routine
Now that COVID-19 lockdowns are over or have eased in many areas, it's time to get back into a routine and start exercising post-COVID-19. From boot camps in the gym to bowing namaste at your local yoga studio, here's how to jump back into group fitness and experience all the benefits of social fitness activities.
1. Find Group Fitness Activities for Exercising Post-COVID-19
If you haven't tried social fitness activities before, you may feel confused or intimidated. Don't worry — all group fitness workouts are appropriate for most fitness and experience levels. When in doubt, simply let the group instructor or trainer know about any concerns you have.
You can find group fitness classes by:
- Asking your gym what they offer
- Consulting the staff at a fitness or nutrition shop about what's popular in the local area
- Thinking of activities you enjoy, then translating that into a workout class (e.g., if you love to dance, Googling "dance workouts in my area" may show Zumba classes, hip hop workouts, etc.)
- Checking with local community organizations and community centers to see what's on their schedule for the coming month
2. Check Yourself (For COVID-19) Before You Wreck Yourself
Most lockdowns may be over, but COVID-19 still exists. Consult the group fitness trainer, the gym or studio, or your local health authorities to ensure you're complying with local regulations and the business' policies regarding the coronavirus. In most cases:
- Never attend a social fitness activity when you're feeling under the weather
- Wait a week or more after any COVID-19 symptoms have subsided before returning to a group fitness class
- Talk to your doctor if you experience chest pains, difficulty breathing, or any COVID-19 symptoms when exercising
3. Ease Into It
There's conflicting research on how quickly you lose muscle strength and endurance, with some studies suggesting that you can take up to a three- or four-week break with no problems while other research indicates that muscles start to lose strength and endurance in as little as a month.
But after two years of lockdowns? You can bet your face mask and dusty gym shoes that you might not be where you were when COVID-19 first swept the globe.
When you're ready for social exercising post-COVID-19, give your body time to adjust to being active again. For example, you may want to scale down the number of plates on your barbell at your next CrossFit class, or enroll in a group walk-to-run program instead of jumping immediately into hill sprints.
4. Add More Recovery Time
You may find that you're sorer than usual if you haven't been working out regularly during lockdowns. Consider the following tips for enhancing recovery:
- Watch for signs of overtraining
- Give your body rest days when needed
- Incorporate de-loading weeks regularly
- Support better exercise recovery with post-workout recovery supplements
Social fitness activities bring so many benefits to our physical health and mental health. Embrace those opportunities again today, now that exercising post-COVID-19 is finally a possibility again.