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In the early days of quarantine, jokes and memes about weight gain quickly made the rounds. Instead of the “freshman 15,” we were facing the “covid-19.”
As exercise facilities closed and people initially feared even going outside, with many suddenly out of work or working from home, with food providing comfort in a stressful time, physical fitness also fell victim to the virus.
It’s understandable that so many people felt unmoored, says Dr. Kathryn McCarthy, a psychologist in the Allegheny Health Network bariatrics department. We were suffering a kind of collective trauma, a mass negative psychological reaction brought about by a traumatic event affecting an entire population.
“Behaviorally, worries and negative thoughts come with isolation. We didn’t know how things were going to change. We were home for too long, we were not motivated,” she says. “Then the fear of going out morphs from anxiety to a kind of agoraphobia. Exercise is often the first thing to go in a high-stress situation.”
“Your routines are gone, your schedules are gone, your sleep schedules are off, your eating schedules are off,” says Dr. Fahad Zubair, direct of obesity and clinical nutrition at AHN. “Most households have been affected.”
But now society is adjusting to a new kind of normal. We’ve learned to negotiate public spaces using safety protocols, the gyms and fitness centers are open, and there’s plenty of good weather left to enjoy.
It’s time to get back to the treadmill, the walking track or other exercise routine of your choice.
“Routine” is a key word in the road back to physical fitness, Zubair says, adding that small changes now can add up to big results over time.
“Getting back on track is the most important thing,” he says. “Go to bed early, get up early. Eating three meals a day ensures that you eat at the right time and don’t feel the need for a snack in between.”
“The thing to do is to target the behavior first, and mood improvement follows,” McCarthy says. “Put exercise back on your schedule.”
Make smart choices
“Today is always the best day to start,” says Tyler Condron, owner of Factory Sports Training in New Kensington — with a few caveats:
• While people who kept up a fitness routine during quarantine should be fine going back to the gym, “older and novice trainees should check with a doctor first,” Condron says. “The smart choice is having an assessment done.”
• Think about your goal and develop a fitness plan to achieve it safely, whether it be cardiovascular fitness, strength training or weight loss.
“Reach out to an expert first if you are unsure of what you are doing,” Condron says. “You need to keep yourself safe.”
• Give yourself time and grace to get back in shape.
“If you could squat 300 pounds three months ago, don’t expect to be able to do that right off when you start again,” he says. “Don’t get discouraged. Patience is key.”
“You can lose strength even in a few days of not exercising, especially if you’re older,” says Roman Carloni, assistant manager of the Aerobic Center at Lynch Field in Greensburg.
“Whatever you lost, you can gain it back, so don’t overdo it,” says Marianne Anzovino, manager of the center. “If you’re a little bit sore after exercising, that’s good. If you can’t move, you did too much.”
Once you have the go-ahead to exercise, “an activity regimen could mean anything that gets your heart rate up and makes you sweat,” Zubair says.
“If it’s been two or three months since you’ve exercised, try 30 minutes of walking five times a week,” he says. If 30 minutes is too taxing at first, try two 15-minute or three 10-minute sessions. Add short intervals of walking faster or jogging as you are able.
“Think of little ways to be physically active during the day. It’s better to do something, rather than nothing,” McCarthy says.
Finding a way to hold yourself accountable to your routine and goals — or having someone to help you — is another way to ensure success, the experts say.
“Very few of us are very strong in our own will,” Zubair says.
The accountability factor is one of the benefits of working out with a trainer or at a fitness center, Anzovino says. Another is the opportunity for socializing and bonding with other people over a shared experience.
That’s especially important for Aerobic Center clients, many of whom are senior citizens and found themselves isolated during the pandemic shutdown, she says.
“Ninety percent of working out for the seniors is the socialization,” she says. “Isolation is hard on them physically and mentally.”
And for everyone, she says, “encouragement during classes helps people work a little harder.”
Accentuate the positive
A little encouragement goes a long way in all situations right now, McCarthy says.
“When I’m seeing patients now, it’s important to help them in normalizing their emotions,” she says. “I tell them all of us are feeling the same way right now.”
McCarthy and Zubair find other positives among the challenges, too.
“There are more free videos and exercise PDFs available now than ever before,” McCarthy says. “You can categorize them based on length — 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 40 minutes. Use them based on the time you have.”
“While we’re all together more at home, you’re cooking more, you’re spending more time with your kids,” Zubair says. “This is a great opportunity to teach children about exercise and healthy eating.”
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .
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