Fitness: If we're all in this together, we need to encourage exercise for all

Not everyone has the space to set up a home gym or the means to buy exercise or sports equipment.

MONTREAL, QUE.: MARCH 27, 2020 -- Seniors Madeleine Riel, top right, Lise Charette, left, and Nicole Dubois, participates in an outdoor Zumba class from the balcony of a seniors residence in Blainville on Friday March 27, 2020. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE) ORG XMIT: 64172 - 2577

The closing of fitness clubs, pausing of group exercise classes and team sports, and limited access to recreation facilities and services due to the pandemic forced a dramatic shift in how Canadians exercise. Some have made the best of a difficult situation, turning more time at home and less time commuting into more time exercising. But for many, the limits on organized sports and other physical activity have led to less exercise, not more.

“The boundaries placed on physical activity have been felt disproportionately by the elderly; comorbid; those with caring responsibilities; those without access to outdoor space; and simply those less literate in exercise, thus widening further inequalities in physical activity,” said a group of health and exercise professionals in a

Not everyone has the space to set up a home gym or the means to buy exercise or sports equipment. And kids who normally rely on organized sports to stay active are home with parents who may feel more comfortable holding a remote than a hockey stick. Then there are neighbourhoods where safe and accessible outdoor spaces to play are limited, making it even tougher to stay active. Add harsh winter weather that makes outdoor exercise less enticing, and the opportunities to stay active shrink even further.

It’s not like we haven’t already experienced the challenges that stay-at-home measures place on our lifestyle — a lifestyle that experts, even prior to the pandemic, suggested doesn’t include enough daily physical activity. Data collected after the first disruption to recreation, sports and fitness programming last spring revealed that Canadian children and youth were less active, spending less time outdoors and more time sleeping and pursuing sedentary activities.

Other studies noted similar changes in exercise behaviour in adults, with data released by the fitness tracker manufacturer Fitbit showing a decline in step counts on the week of March 22 across all countries, including Canada, when compared to the same time in 2019. The pandemic reduced the step count of Canadians by 14 per cent.

So significant was the slowdown in physical activity during the first wave, a Canadian team of health and exercise professionals from the University of British Columbia, the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and ParticipACTION suggested that “attenuating the loss of incidental physical activity should be a public health priority in response to future pandemics or a second wave of a COVID-19 infection, as it may have significant long-term implications for the physical and mental health of Canadians.”

Too little movement results in a decline of muscle power and strength, decreased cardiovascular fitness and increased insulin resistance. These changes are even more remarkable in the elderly, who have been more isolated and housebound than younger members of the population due to the increased health risks regarding COVID-19.

“Previously independent elderly people may emerge from lockdown dependent due to functional strength loss,” say the exercise and health experts in the BMJ commentary.

Ruth Hellstern is the recreation director at Le Cambridge seniors’ residence in Pointe-Claire. In addition to closing down their gym, pool and many of their group exercise classes and recreation programs, they also dealt with an outbreak of COVID-19, which meant all their residents spent two weeks isolated in their rooms. Understanding that she needed to keep her community moving, Hellstern looked for alternatives.

“We have an internal TV channel, so we videotaped our exercise classes and put them on all the TVs in the rooms of our residents,” said Hellstern.

She also organized outdoor workouts, weather permitting, with instructors in the courtyard leading residents who were working out on their balconies.

“It’s been a challenge,” admitted Hellstern, “but we do as much as we can.”

With evidence that certain subsets of the population have fewer opportunities to be active during a lockdown, public health messages should include advice on simple, affordable and accessible ways to stay active. Municipalities should also redeploy their sports and recreation staff from arenas, pools and gyms to outdoor public spaces that have been reimagined to allow Canadians of all ages to walk, skate, ski and play. Other simple measures, such as ensuring sidewalks are free of ice and snow, will also bring more people outside during the winter months.

Online fitness resources should also be made available to a wider range of Canadians, including children and the elderly who are underserved by existing fitness apps and online classes.

If we are indeed all in this together, then we need to do more to encourage daily physical activity for all.

“Not only is a holistic, collaborative and integrated public health approach required to reduce the negative impact of high amounts of sedentary behaviour in the population during the current pandemic,” said the authors of the BMJ commentary, “but specific strategies using a place-based approach targeting at-risk and disadvantaged groups from national to grassroots level need to be considered if we are ever to reduce the further widening of physical activity health inequality.”


Researchers at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal are conducting a study to test the efficacy of online interventions to help couples remain active and eat healthily during the confinement period.

The study will compare two intervention programs developed for couples aged 50 to 75 who are overweight or obese. One program will focus on how partners work together to make healthy eating and physical activity part of their daily routine, and the other program will be a consultation with a dietitian.

Both programs will include access to web-based exercise training adapted for the confinement period. Both will feature 10 sessions over four months.

The researchers are also conducting other studies on how cohabiting partners are influencing each other’s diet and physical activity behaviours during confinement.

If you are interested in participating in these studies, please contact

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