The extra mile: how Covid-19 transformed exercise

On a bright Sunday in mid-October, I ran 26.2 miles around New York City on my own. After eight months without training plans, group runs or shorter races, I was so convinced I wouldn’t finish my virtual marathon that I told almost no one I was attempting it.

I went on to record one of the fastest times of my previous 20 or so marathons, without any of the usual post-race aches and pains. I was delighted — and really, really puzzled. 

If you’d asked me before that Sunday, I’d have said I’d failed at pandemic fitness. Flying from Dublin to New York in mid-March, facing into what I thought would be a few weeks of working from home, I drew up a schedule of all the things I’d finally have time to do. I would run every day. Climb the stairs to my 17th-floor apartment. Do strength and high-intensity interval training workouts several times a week, using an app I already had on my phone. Finally take up yoga.

But a few weeks into lockdown living, almost all my new plans seemed to fall by the wayside. The $200 jump rope set I bought was used about four times. I used the workout app a bit more, but only because of the peer pressure of friends who organised group workouts over Zoom. I took the stairs to my flat five times in eight months.

My daily runs became an exercise in drudgery. I shortened them. I took breaks during them. But what I somehow didn’t notice is that I kept doing them. Almost every day, no matter how I felt about life, or running, I got up, dressed for a run, and headed out. What was once a choice became a reflex. That’s what got me through those 26.2 miles.

What about the rest of the world? Have people generally become more fit and active during this strangest of years? The friends, colleagues and contacts I canvass about how their fitness evolved through this crazy year — a group of more than 30 people — almost all say they are exercising more. 

New Yorkers exercise in a park in lower Manhattan . . .  © Getty Images
. . . while yoga is performed in Mumbai © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Though ours is an undeniably privileged cohort, one-time office workers now ensconced in our living rooms and home offices, an array of apps capturing activities and health data offers some hard evidence to judge whether this increase in activity is true across a population broader than city workers.

There are some important caveats. Much exercise is not recorded digitally. Many working from home with small children to care for no longer have the time to exercise, or are unable to afford high-tech gadgets for their home. Furloughed service workers often got most of their daily activity at jobs that are once again on pause. 

Still, there are many signs of improving fitness among some groups. Between March and September, Peloton, best known for its spinning bikes, almost trebled the number of people who pay for its digital fitness classes but don’t buy equipment. Turbo trainers allowing you to cycle indoors on an outdoor bike were so in demand that by April they were sold out across much of Europe. Sales of actual bikes jumped too, along with sales of running shoes. In New York, some faced a three-week wait for gym equipment like dumbbells and kettlebells. 

Myzone, a fitness tracker that converts workouts into points based on intensity and duration, found users have been earning an average of almost 20 per cent more monthly points since April versus a year earlier. The biggest increase has been in the over-55 age group.

Charts showing lockdown impulse to get fit levels off after early surge

Strava, a social network where around 70m people record and share exercise sessions, will not give a full breakdown of activity levels across the platform, but says that, as an example, it has seen a 61 per cent jump in the number of Londoners running between this April and June versus a year earlier. Globally, the number of people setting records for cycling or running a particular stretch is up 50 per cent over the same period, suggesting fitness improvements. 

Fitbit, a popular steps and exercise tracker that also monitors heart rates and sleep patterns, found that resting heart rates slowed in early months of lockdown across the US, another sign of a fitter population (though those gains faded as lockdowns eased).

Scott Powell, chief operating officer of Wells Fargo, and an avid runner and cycler, is among those who have been working out more in the pandemic era. “It’s definitely [due to] having more time,” he says, describing his midweek exercise as “hit and miss” in the pre-Covid-19 world of commuting, frequent business trips and meeting-packed schedules. 

Now he gets out most days, as I can see from his Strava profile. “It’s all very plannable,” Powell says, adding that he has become “fitter and faster” in the months since his corporate office in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards emptied out.

Not that getting fitter and faster is Powell’s aim these days. In the pandemic world, the banker says it’s more about having something “mentally refreshing” after a long day in his home office than notching up personal records. 

Jumping stairs in Central Park . . . © Getty Images
. . . and skipping rope in south London © Getty Images

The switch to focusing on exercise’s psychological benefits rather than its physical ones is echoed by several interviewees, including finance executives whom I deal with in my day job writing about banking.

“I remember being hugely relieved during the tightest part of lockdown that they never quite took away our right to exercise every day, as they did in Spain for example,” says John Wraith, a serial marathon runner and rates trader at UBS London who says he “appreciated more than ever” being “able to run my worries away in such strange times”. 

Ricardo Mora, a New York-based partner at Goldman Sachs, says his running has become a “lifeline and an opportunity to escape from that blurred world” of working and home life through the pandemic. 

“In the old days you’d be worried about taking 10 seconds off of a mile, now you’re just happy to be able to go outside,” he says. “Against that backdrop [of the pandemic], the goals of race times and things we used to worry about are very secondary.”

Morning exercise in Hudson River Park in New York . . . © Getty Images
. . . and along the Mumbai seafront © Getty Images

The lure of the great outdoors was a key driver of behaviour changes for those who hadn’t previously spent much time exercising outside. One banker described walking his dog for 15km a day because that was one of the only permitted outdoor activities in the city where he was locked down. 

In the UK, Mel Sutton, a Glasgow-based entrepreneur who works with hedge funds, says people were encouraged to work out since the UK’s lockdown rules this spring allowed people to leave the house for exercise, but not much else. “I personally felt I had to go out and at least go for a walk,” he says. “Towards the end of lockdown I was running 40k-50k a week, which is more than I have ever done.”

Sutton’s zeal for exercise was also driven by newly awakened health concerns. He’s only 30, but was conscious of early data coming out of Italy which “suggested that unfit males were more likely to visit ICU — even young people”. 

Brendan Delanty, a finance worker in Hong Kong, said he’d begun 2020 “very overweight” with a plan to get in shape. He lost 12kg in the first half of the year and believes the pandemic helped him. “By worrying so much that I wasn’t going to be able to make progress, I really took action,” he said, describing how he bought “a load of equipment”, changed his sleep patterns so he could run before others woke up, and signed up with a personal trainer for outdoor sessions.

Strava looked at the usage patterns for over-60s, another high-risk group in the pandemic. In the UK and Ireland, those older users were 37 per cent more active from April to September this year versus a year earlier. Globally, the increase in activity among the over-60s was almost 12 per cent on the same basis. 

Shared experiences — albeit virtual ones — helped others stay fitter or get fit during the pandemic.

Sebastian Howell, a PR executive at Goldman Sachs in London, describes how his running had become a way to “get over cabin fever, rather than for enjoyment or fitness” until he and some of the other dads at his children’s school started a virtual competition. They were divided into teams, and raced a local 5km route that they created on Strava. 

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“If I saw someone break my time, I would be back out there an hour later to try and win it back,” he says. “What was great was to see people who didn’t normally run get out and give it a go. Our kids even took part, competing among their school buddies who they hadn’t seen for weeks.” 

Priya Bajoria, a consultant at Publicis Sapient in New York, says she and her friends took daily screenshots of their views, sharing walks from Sydney to San Francisco across a WhatsApp group. That encouraged her to find different local and state parks every weekend to hike or walk in, just to make it interesting for me and everyone else”. 

UBS’s Wraith has been taking part in a virtual mission to run, walk or cycle 21,600 miles across the globe to get to virtually drop in on places where various friends live. “You can see on the app where you are on the virtual map versus where you should be if [you’re] on track to complete it, and it really does push you to do that little bit more.”

Then there are those who used the pandemic to dive into completely new fitness adventures. Mike Mayo, a veteran Wall Street analyst who was previously a keen squash player and gym-goer, has taken up powerlifting and is hoping to qualify for national competitions in three years. 

Charts showing the massive rise in non-gym exercise and stress-reducing activities amid pandemic

“I never would have done it if it wasn’t for the pandemic,” he says, describing it as “great stress relief during a time when so much is going on” as well as a shared experience with his teenage son. It’s also “extremely quarantine-friendly”, since it can be done without leaving his Long Island house, where he has been for most of the pandemic. 

Mayo is far from the only one repurposing a corner of his home into a gym. Americans’ spending on home fitness equipment doubled to $2.1bn in March to September this year versus the same period in 2019, research firm NPD told the FT.

Stats on new powerlifting aficionados are hard to come by, but consultancy Publicis Sapient’s Digital Life Index shows that 27 per cent of people started a new form of fitness between mid-March and mid-June.

Fitbit’s data showed that rollerblading and yoga nearly tripled in popularity for 18- to 29-year-olds in 2020 versus 2019. Kick-boxing is also on the rise, across all age groups, as is orienteering among 30- to 49-year-olds. 

My fitness adventure — the $200 I spent on skipping — did not go well. I’m not the only one who has struggled with aspects of pandemic fitness.

Arunkumar Krishnakumar, a London-based investor, describes how his routine of healthy eating, a personal trainer and an expensive gym went out the window in the Covid-19 era. He bought a Peloton but doesn’t do “enough steps, enough weights” and his new food habits are “mostly a carbs fest”. 

Mike Leveque, chief executive for Myzone in Americas, says that the number of people using their Myzone trackers fell to 70 per cent in March, because “30 per cent of users were just not able to maintain their regular fitness programme”. It has since rallied to 86 per cent.

Friends tell me how their daily steps have fallen now they aren’t commuting, and they fear worse to come as the winter draws nearer.

Others admit to losing motivation in a world without real races to train for and many dread the long dark winter. Wells Fargo’s Powell describes all but abandoning his Peloton because “after being cooped up all day, the last thing I want to do is go to another small room” and work out. 

Research used in a campaign for easing restrictions on California’s gyms found that 86 per cent of health and fitness-oriented Californians reported at least one negative change in their health since their gyms closed. 

Those with household incomes below $75,000 were the least likely to have a space to exercise in their homes, market research firm Emicity found, reminding me of a conversation I had with a bank executive early in the pandemic. I asked him how he was finding working from home and he said it was great, he could go to the gym every day. “The gyms are still open there?” I asked. “The gym’s in my house,” he replied. 

Nine months in, I miss my gym. It was my second home in a city that wasn’t home, a place that I went to for quick sessions between meetings or outfit changes before evening events. It was where I took classes with instructors who screamed at you and demanded you got better, stronger, faster. 

I got a Peloton a few weeks ago, and now similar rallying cries echo around my living room. It’s not the same, but I’m hoping it’ll be enough to motivate and engage me through the long New York winter. 

Laura Noonan at the Virtual TCS New York City Marathon 2020

As for running, that virtual marathon motivated me to sign up for another one two weeks later. 

This one was New York City, my adopted hometown’s race. Physically, it was much tougher than the one two weeks earlier, and as the marathon app played audio of the start line siren at Staten Island, I was hit with an unexpected pang of loss for the race I wasn’t running, the life I wasn’t living. 

But there were runners and their supporters elbow-bumping, air-fiving and cheering each other all across Manhattan, culminating in a makeshift finish line in Central Park, where friends waited for me with water and cake even as the rain poured. It was different, but it was still magical. 

Laura Noonan is the FT’s US banking editor

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