COVID-19 one year later: How the pandemic has made us less active

U of A physical therapy grads share what they’ve learned after a year of prescribing activity without sports or gyms

Anne-Marie Aguilar - 17 March 2021

We’ve been working from home for a year. Hunched over on kitchen stools, working around the clock, constantly distracted. How are we feeling? What have we done to our bodies? And what do rehabilitation professionals have to say about it? This story is Part 2 in a series of COVID-19 reflections from the Faculty of Rehabilitation MedicineCheck out Part 1 and Part 3.

Before COVID-19 shut down our recreation facilities last year, I went to the gym six times a week. I loved my weekday 5 a.m. HIIT workouts. If anyone had the willpower and routine needed to stay active during a pandemic, it was me.

Sitting at my cramped home office one year to the week most of the world locked down, I realize how wrong I was. Thanks to bad ergonomics, long working hours and the lack of a strict fitness schedule, I’ve spent more time ignoring my body than I have exercising it.   

In a year without gyms, group fitness, organized sports and community recreation, our physical and mental health have suffered. Some of us have turned to fitness apps, virtual classes or even taken up a new outdoor activity. But how many have stuck with these new habits? 

To find out how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our ability to stay active, I reached out to two Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine Department of Physical Therapy grads, Heidi Fedoruk (’99 BScPT), physiotherapist and co-founder of Leading Edge Physiotherapy, and Daniel Gregg (’14 MA, ’19 MScPT), a physiotherapist at REP Physio in Edmonton.

Fedoruk and Gregg are seeing common issues in physiotherapy clients since the pandemic and offer tips to get healthy in spite of barriers to fitness: 

My aching back

Sore backs, necks and shoulders are the most common aches and pains treated by physiotherapists, but since COVID-19, those aches have become more complicated. 

“Working from home means we don’t have those movement breaks that promote blood flow, such as walking to the car, to the train, or to the office,” says Gregg. For those who live in small spaces, like me, that commute may be as little as 10 steps from the bed to the desk. 

And my makeshift workstation doesn’t help.

Fedoruk says we underestimate the importance of our office equipment. “You wouldn’t skate on dull skates or play sports with ill-fitting equipment for even an hour, but people are sitting for eight or 10 hours straight at a poorly set up workspace.” Check out these tips to create a more healthy and supportive home office.

Our backaches may be due to our sedentary lifestyle and kitchen chairs, but we’re also feeling pain more acutely during these anxious times. “Anxiety can increase our perception of pain,” says Gregg. “When you’re stressed you don’t sleep well, you're not outside getting sunshine. Top that with a physical presentation of pain and people absolutely feel symptoms more than normal.”

There is no “I” in team 

I really miss multi-sports and playing in a rec league, and I’m not alone. Fedoruk says many of her clients miss the camaraderie and motivation that come with exercising in a group setting.

“One way to combat this is to recruit a few friends to do an online workout together,” she says. It’s easy to find free workout videos on YouTube or through City of Edmonton Recreation Centres that can be shared with friends.

And as recreation facilities start to open up again, Gregg cautions his clients to go slow. “People who depended on sports, teams and gyms to stay active and healthy became sedentary for a while,” he says. Expecting our stressed out, inactive bodies to jump back into basketball or get swept into curling is asking for trouble. 

Shiny new things

If you tried to buy a bicycle or skis in 2020, you know how popular these outdoor activities have become. “There’s been a huge upswing in people biking, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, golfing and picking up other outdoor activities they haven’t participated in before,” says Gregg. But new activities bring new accident-related injuries.

Fedoruk says injuries from sudden overuse are also common. “We're seeing a lot of people who just started running or who started doing exercise videos in their basement and they’re developing conditions from repetitive strain and overuse,” she says. “Sudden loading of tissues without inherent strength and flexibility can be cause for injury and pain.”  

Remember to take breaks and take time to recover, Fedoruk says. Stretching and treating your body right post-workout is just as important as the workout itself.

Don’t rely on Dr. Google

When the pandemic hit, physiotherapy clinics – like most health and wellness services – were required to stop providing non-urgent services. Many clinics chose to close temporarily in order to limit the spread of the virus. As a result most clients' treatment was postponed for a few months. Even now, as clinics have safely reopened and are adhering to strict public health guidelines, some clients are hesitant to return. 

Fedoruk says some conditions can be managed well with sound advice, but other acute or chronic injuries can worsen without proper treatment. “A lot of patients come in only when their pain or dysfunction puts them at a tipping point for quality of life,” she says. “They then come in with multiple and separate complaints. And their recovery can be slower.”

If you're feeling aches and pains, seek treatment, either in person at safely re-opened clinics, or through one of many Tele-Rehab options available to those who may not have access to physiotherapy in their local communities.

So mall walking isn’t a thing anymore?

With facilities closing and clients not having access to home equipment, Gregg admits it’s been a challenge to find ways for his clients to rehab in a safe setting and in an activity they enjoy. 

We would normally encourage seniors to move and get exercise by walking around outside or indoors at a mall where they can rest on benches and avoid slipping on the ice,” says Gregg. “But we can't tell them that now, because it's not safe.” 

Staying healthy and active a year into COVID-19 takes commitment. The key, Gregg says, is to find something meaningful. “If you’re going to commit to being active, the activity needs to be important to you.”


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