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Many people who identified as “non-exercisers” in the past began working out during the pandemic. But experts say maintaining these behaviors over the long term can be challenging without a plan. Getty Images
  • More people are beginning to return to the office after months of working remotely.
  • A new survey found that nearly 60 percent of those who identified as “non-exercisers” in the past are now actively exercising an average of 2.64 times each week since returning to the office.
  • If you’re new to maintaining a regular fitness routine, experts say it’s important to start low with less strenuous activities and progress gradually.
  • Making sure to enjoy the type of exercise you’re doing can help you stick to new routines and maintain a higher level of fitness.

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted behaviors and daily routines, how has it affected the way people approach fitness?

A survey out late this summer reveals that this current phase of the health crisis in the United States — with people returning to offices and social engagements, that regular ebb and flow of day-to-day life resembling something like pre-pandemic times — has spurred some of those who were least active to embrace physical fitness in their routines.

The survey from shoe review company RunRepeat reached out to 2,494 people who were working remotely during the pandemic, asking them about exercise habits before and then after returning to work. They found that 59.52 percent of those who identified as “non-exercisers” in the past are now actively exercising an average of 2.64 times each week since returning to the office.

Additionally, people who exercised one to two times each week increased their exercise frequency by 125.93 percent, while those who exercised up to three times each week increased their frequency by 38.57 percent. Those who exercised the most — four or more times each week — actually decreased their frequency by 14.16 percent once they returned to more traditional work schedules.

Nick Rizzo, RunRepeat’s fitness research director, told Healthline that as someone who has been working remotely by choice since before the pandemic, he didn’t expect to see such a “drastic increase” in exercise frequency for those who were least active before.

He said that a sense of returning to normalcy in the workplace potentially helped people “fall back into normal routines,” perhaps finding that the structure of a workday makes it easier to embrace healthy behaviors.

“I’ve been working remotely for a long time, and others I know who have done the same have built good habits. But during the pandemic, you have people who were forced to work remotely, whose schedules were completely disrupted,” Rizzo said. “I chose to work remotely 4 years ago and sought out companies that were remote; a lot of people didn’t ask for it, they got forced into it.”

He explained this might have thrown people off having a regular fitness routine, while this current phase of the pandemic — while still full of its uncertainties — might be giving the exercise-averse a sense of structure.

When it came to those who were most active — exercising four or more times a week — dropping off in their frequency of exercise, Rizzo said one reason might be the fact that a return to a more traditional work schedule actually made it more difficult for these individuals to maintain that high level of exercise frequency.

The completely at-home work schedules that marked the height of the pandemic over the past year made it easy to adopt four or more exercise sessions for these individuals. A return to more rigid work schedules, complete with in-person meetings and back-to-office commutes can make that harder to achieve.

Kaitlyn Baird, MA, exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center, told Healthline that, in general, as gyms and group fitness studios have reopened, she’s observed increasingly “more people getting out there and engaging in fitness.

“Since everyone has a different level of comfort around social distancing and mask wearing, I have seen an increased demand for smaller group fitness classes, outdoor classes, and more people walking and running outside on their own. People seem to be putting a little more time into planning their workouts,” said Baird, who was not affiliated with the RunRepeat survey.

“The lockdown of 2020 made it difficult for everyone to socialize and kept everyone at home, and I think that led to people wanting to fill that time with something positive.

“If they were able to establish a regular routine of physical activity, whether that was virtual classes or outdoor walking and jogging, there seems to be a desire to keep that time available even as things open back up,” she added.

When it comes to those who were less active than others before the pandemic, Baird says she has definitely noticed anecdotal evidence that complements the survey results. She said the adoption of virtual fitness programs for those sheltering at home “opened the door” for people to “try new forms of physical activity” they might not have gravitated to before.

“There was also a wave of new at-home fitness equipment and class subscription offerings, which many people turned to immediately following the shutdown,” she said. “Since people didn’t have to commute, they got some time back in their day. Many people I have spoken to found that to be one positive coming out of a very tough time.”

One challenge some of the recent exercise adopters might face during this time is adhering to their new behaviors. If you’re starting a new routine while getting back to the grind of a 9-to-5 office job, how difficult is it to maintain that new behavior?

Rizzo said that it’s generally hard for people to keep new behaviors and make them a standard part of their days.

“We’ve seen a lot of people struggle, maybe they struggled during the pandemic, maybe they didn’t feel good about themselves, and they decided to go get back in shape. They were maybe feeling motivated to address some of these things,” Rizzo said. “For these people, the pandemic and a return to work offered a great boon to get more active, but now it’s about whether they maintain these behaviors.”

Baird said that the strategy for how these people approach fitness “has to change a little” in order for them to maintain new behaviors they might be adopting now that they’re heading back to office culture.

“For people who really got started during the shutdown, the strategy was to fit movement into their day, and they may not have had too many other things to balance. In that way, the motivation may have been high, with little downside. As more things become available again, people have to weigh the pros and cons of each,” she said.

“Do I socialize or workout? Do I spend time with my family or work out? These can be hard to balance, so the strategy has to change. That is why I think many people are planning their workouts more thoughtfully.

“Many people felt the benefits of being more physically active — both physically and mentally — and it seems to be a priority in a way it maybe hadn’t been prior to the shutdown,” she explained.

When asked what activities people can adopt and how they can incorporate them into their lives and sustain that behavior, Baird suggested that people have to “like” what they are doing. It can’t be a chore.

“Whether it’s the type of workout, the instructor, or the people you are with, having those positive associations with physical activity can be a great motivator,” she said. “How hard is it to maintain a regular, consistent physical fitness routine? That is difficult to answer even before the pandemic because everyone has different things to balance. Keeping up with a routine not only involves resources, time, motivation, and proper guidance, but also behavior.”

She said that “one thing we can all agree on” when assessing the pandemic is that it has been “emotionally very taxing.” Exercise can be the perfect way to improve one’s sense of well-being, mood, energy, and cognitive functioning, she stressed.

Baird said it’s important to start low with less strenuous activities and progress gradually. Additionally, incorporate movement in your regular errands. If you can safely walk somewhere like the store or to meet a friend, do so rather than hopping in the car.

Finding a workout buddy is another way you can motivate yourself to maintain a new exercise behavior.

“If you like data, try using a workout app to keep track of your physical activity. Many apps will gamify your week with incentives and awards. Who doesn’t love a gold star at the end of the week?” she said. “Try something new, because many classes are outside or smaller in size, now can be a great time to try a new activity.”