Reflecting on Our Zeal for Fitness in Times of Covid-19

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Marianne Clark

While perhaps not as essential as pasta or toilet paper, fitness gear such as skipping ropes and yoga mats are flying off store shelves during the Covid-19 crisis. A recent personal search led to countless niche online-fitness stores before finally locating a moderately-priced skipping rope available for purchase. It had a few more bells and whistles than I needed, but I clicked ‘purchase’ in a panic before it disappeared from my cart. This phenomenon is a result of current social distancing guidelines that are prompting both committed fitness enthusiasts and those  looking to work off pent-up energy to find new ways, and spaces, in which to move. While this can seem like a relatively trivial concern in the face of a pandemic, social response to the altered and restricted opportunities for exercise is fascinating to observe. Indeed, physical activity is an enduring mainstay of popular and public health discourse and its physical and mental health benefits are well established. Fitness is also the darling of social media platforms where the latest Pilates/Barre/HITT workouts are often celebrated alongside images of buff bodies. However, these conversations don’t always capture the multiple meanings bodily movement can hold for people and often overlook the complex social and economic conditions that enable or constrain participation.

Currently, outdoor exercise remains a permissible activity in New South Wales as long as social distancing guidelines are complied with. In fact, governing bodies and expert voices emphasise  the importance of remaining active for both our physical and mental health and provide tips on keeping active even in times of pandemic. However, usual options for participation are limited. Currently in Australia community centres and fitness facilities, which often act as important social spaces, are closed. So are many public parks and outdoor gyms. Incidental activity we may usually accrue from walking or cycling to work, the bus stop or to the local shops has also been dramatically decreased.

As a result, our relationships with movement, bodies (our own and those of others) and space and place are changing. In some cases, this is prompting creative new engagements with space and the outdoors. Anecdotal conversations with colleagues, friends, and family suggest both avid exercisers and ‘newbies’ alike are seeking and creating new opportunities to move. For some this entails makeshift gyms in garages and backyards if they are fortunate enough to have them. Others have dusted off  bikes with oil-parched chains and taken to zooming around traffic-calmed streets. Others pace their neighbourhood streets or brave the occasional run, veering around others’ bodies in new choreographies of space. For many, these movement opportunities are important ways to break up the day and provide a form of emotional and physical reprieve from the omni-present worries of these times.

The author repurposes her less-than-glamorous garage to create an improvised workout space.

Zumba, Zoom and The Virtual Fitness Wave

Perhaps unsurprisingly, digital spaces have also emerged as imperative for those looking to replace their favourite bootcamp class or simply looking for distraction. A cacophony of online offerings have taken over the interwebs,  ranging from beginner dance classes, a plethora of yoga and Pilates classes offered by well-intended individual instructors and boutique studios, and sleekly-produced boot camp classes offered by industry heavy hitters such as Les Mills.  And it’s not just adults being targeted, online phenomomon Joe Wicks has been making waves in the UK with his high-energy and fun-loving approach to physical activity for kids who find themselves unable to run off steam in the school yard or Phys. Ed. class, with parents often joining in. Additionally, digital platforms such as Zoom are providing a lifeline for people like professional dancers and athletes, for whom maintaining physical conditioning is key to their livelihood.

There is much to applaud in these efforts. The lack of paywalls on many virtual fitness classes means people who may not otherwise have access due to the prohibitive costs of gym memberships have one barrier removed.  Online offerings may also provide an outlet for those with fitness expertise and instruction skills to contribute to a community of sorts. Taking part in ‘new’ forms of movement might facilitate enjoyable physical experiences and allow people to notice new bodily capacities and expressions — perhaps those parents jumping around with Joe Wicks or creating TikTok dances with their kids will be pleasantly surprised by how good it feels to exert.

However, the influx of online resources also presents questions about who these resources do and do not benefit.  Additionally, while the vast array of online options can be helpful for those already familiar with a yoga mat and with a penchant for burpees, they can also feel a little overwhelming. Many of us are working from home right now and the energetic demands of caring for family members, maintaining some semblance of normalcy in daily routines, and trying to remain productive and emotionally well in such precarious times means we don’t always have the time or energy to exercise. Nor do we necessarily need something to add to our ‘to do’ list.  Furthermore, not everyone wants to tune into online boot camps: some may take greater solace in artistic endeavours, gardening or video games if they have the time and means to do so.  

Importantly, our movement experiences and opportunities are always shaped by factors such as where we live, our financial resources and circumstance, work, parenting and care obligations, and our bodily abilities and capacities to name a few. These varying conditions are what create health inequities and mean it is always easier for some people to be active — and therefore to access the associated physical and mental health benefits — than others. Such issues of equity come into greater focus in the conditions of Covid-19. For example, many Australians do not have reliable access to the internet, to enjoyable or safe outdoor spaces to move in, and/or may experience precarious or unsafe living conditions that Covid-19 social distancing conditions only intensify. While the conditions of Covid-19 place barriers and constraints on the lives of many, these are not felt or distributed equally. In some ways, this zeal for everyone to get and remain active for wellbeing assumes that everyone CAN be active, and risks minimizing the very real and devastating reasons for which they cannot.

Indeed, the importance of movement for our mental health seems to be in clearer focus than ever, and this offers many positives: we may begin to think more carefully about what getting up and moving does for our relationships with others, our neighbourhoods and environments as well as our moods. We may begin to expand the broader social dialogue around physical activity that tends to frame it as something we do to reduce health risks and built aesthetic bodies and instead notice in new ways how our bodies benefit from movement; how moving more or less impacts the way we feel and how those experiences aren’t always best explained through – nor can they reduced to — discourses of health and beauty.

However, in our current zeal to promote – and perform – various forms of exercise to maintain wellbeing, it’s important to consider how the vast messaging around fitness and physical activity acknowledges (or fails to acknowledge) the diversity of conditions in which people are living. This is particularly important in times of crisis when mental and physical health are already precarious. In times when nothing is at it was, we, (researchers, pedagogues, journalists, social media influencers, physical educators and fitness instructors ) have an opportunity, perhaps a responsibility, to think how the very taken for granted ways we often think about health and exercise, and the social evaluations often attached to these behaviour, might be shifted. For example, we might ask:

  • How can we — especially those working in the area of health and physical activity promotion — elaborate our thinking to recognize the specific ways barriers to physical activity play out in people’s daily lives and shape their embodied experiences of health?
  • How might virtual and online offerings address some of these barriers and what barriers remain?
  • How do we harness this time of overall disruption to imagine how such barriers might be addressed and to shake up our thinking about the meanings of physical activity beyond physical indices of health and the pursuit of aesthetic bodies?

Published by Marianne Clark

Marianne is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Vitalities Lab, UNSW Sydney interested in moving bodies, digital bodies and cultures, and all those bodies 'in-between'.

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on Our Zeal for Fitness in Times of Covid-19

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