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Kerri Walsh Jennings says you don’t have to be an Olympian to take a gold-medal approach to your health while on lockdown. Small changes can make a big difference. Image via Almond Board of California
  • Despite the 2020 Summer Olympic Games being postponed, beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings is continuing to approach her health from the perspective of an elite athlete during COVID-19.
  • She stresses that people don’t have to be an Olympian to focus on their health and happiness during the pandemic.
  • Focusing on small changes to your diet and levels of exercise can make big changes to how you are feeling while on lockdown.
  • However, taking on too much too fast can lead to frustration and potential injury. Go slowly and be gentle with yourself.

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Kerri Walsh Jennings, the most decorated beach volleyball player in Olympics history, was expecting to be having very different 2020 from the one she’s living now.

She’s won four medals — three of them gold — and after earning the bronze at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games was training hard to stand on that podium once more at this summer’s planned Olympics in Tokyo.

But, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world and everything changed.

In early April, the International Olympic Committee made the announcement that this year’s games would be postponed until summer 2021. For context of how significant this news was, the modern Olympic Games have been canceled a mere three times, once during World War I and twice during World War II.

This of course means a disorienting life shift for an elite athlete like Walsh Jennings. It takes years to get ready for the Olympics. In fact, she started to qualify for the 2020 tournament way back in the fall of 2018. Last year, she told Healthline that she was “laser-focused to qualify and win a gold medal.”

So, where do things stand now? She said the news of the postponement didn’t come as a shock — “the writing was on the wall.”

“I think my subconscious was prepared, and once they made that decision [to cancel], it was a relief,” Walsh Jennings told Healthline in late May. “Once I know what I’m working with I literally can handle anything, I can wrap my head around it, I can make a plan.”

That ability to compartmentalize and remain focused on the task at hand has served Walsh Jennings well in her sport and with coping with the adjustments required to shelter-at-home during the coronavirus outbreak.

She’s been doing what she can to maintain a healthy, nutritious diet, maintain a rigorous exercise regimen, but that certainly isn’t without its challenges, too.

When COVID-19 hit and the Olympics were canceled, she explained that she had to change her mindset from “preseason to off-season.”

“It took the pressure off me to no longer train as I normally do,” Walsh Jennings said. “So, my life looks different but my goals and dreams have not changed, I just have a longer runway now.”

She believes in consistency, responding to questions of what the difference is between training and competition with the fact that there isn’t much of a difference between the two.

Walsh Jennings has strived to master consistency in her nutrition and fitness, something that works for whether she is preparing for a major tournament or trying to stay well during the current health crisis.

Right now, she’s consuming less because she isn’t working out as intensely. She says she focuses on steering clear of overly processed food items.

She’s also been cooking a lot more, seeking “raw and healthy ingredients” like almonds and almond milk, something that she says sets a good example for her children.

When it comes to exercise, she said she has to intentionally carry out routines to keep her on track. She lays out her workout clothes on her bed each day.

“If I schedule in a workout, it’s going to get done,” Walsh Jennings added.

Understandably, for a world-class volleyball player “movement is hugely important,” and she said her exercise regimen is necessary to help her clear her head during our current stressful, anxiety ridden times.

Currently, she’s doing everything she normally would during a regular season, minus professional volleyball itself. In season, her lifting regimen would be more intense.

“Now, since I’m kind of in this perpetual preseason, I’m working on my strength gains and aligning my body and emphasizing my foundation so that I can be in as best alignment as possible,” she added.

Of course, you don’t have to be an Olympian to be faced with the question of how to stay in optimal health during an unprecedented time. It’s something we’re all wrestling with.

Dr. Cordelia Carter, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Center for Women’s Sports Health at NYU Langone Health, said that it is important for people — whether or not they embraced exercise in the pre-COVID-19 past — to be physically active as they shelter at home.

She told Healthline that it is important for overall physical health, bone health, and mental health.

Carter, who is not affiliated with any of Walsh Jenning’s sponsorships or initiatives, said she’s found physical activity can especially be a boon for parents sheltering at home with restless children with short attention spans. Introducing your kids to exercise and even participating with them can help them focus better and alleviate some of your own stress.

Basically, there is no real downside to embracing exercise at home. Just be careful.

She said if you’re starting to incorporate a new fitness regimen in your day-to-day life, avoid injury by adding variety. Space out the kinds of workouts you attempt each day. Carter said even she made the mistake early on during COVID-19 by going for runs every day — it was more than her body could handle, and she developed a tendon strain.

What are ways to incorporate variety? Carter stressed that activities like yoga and meditation are good ways to break up more strenuous physical activities. Of course, the realities of staying at home mean you don’t necessarily have access to a gym or the equipment you might be used to. One go-to for her has been finding online workout videos and apps to help give her easy-to-follow routines that she can do from her living room.

Walsh Jennings said this is a time for us all to take a collective breath and to not be hard on ourselves. This is a point that Carter echoed — adjust your expectations.

“I’d say adjust expectations but also forgive yourself. That means some of us really hold ourselves to bigger, high standards of athletic performance, and this is a time where it’s OK to say ‘I don’t feel like working out today,'” Carter explained. “I think allowing some element of personal forgiveness is important.”

She added that given how our lives have changed so dramatically in such a short amount of time with no clear end in sight, it’s okay to “define a new normal” for now and not to get frustrated if you can’t adhere to your past level of activity.

“Those who say ‘man, I’m going to be in the best shape of my life, because now I have all the time to work out,’ well I would say that’s great as long as everybody is being smart about how they’re working out and not ramping up too much too soon,” Carter said. “Don’t try a new skill that you haven’t done the building blocks for beforehand.”

Walsh Jennings said when she first heard the Olympics were off it was “a bummer” but that she quickly reoriented how she approached that news.

“It meant I now had 365 days to become the best I’ve ever been with my [volleyball] partner,” she said.

When it comes to the sport itself and how it might look in a future after the pandemic passes, she said she is unsure what might happen. Will volleyball matches look different if people still need to sit 6 feet apart next summer?

“I obviously don’t know what the world is going to look like. Hopefully it’s a better place, hopefully people will live more mindfully, and more aware that each of our choices impacts the world,” Walsh Jennings said.

“When it comes to sporting events and what the way the world will be after this, as long as we are encouraged, we step up to the challenge of taking care of ourselves, we should not be worried about the structures and procedures put in place.”

She said she is choosing to see this as “a healing time for the world” as well as a “healing time for myself.”

“Give yourself high-fives, be kind to yourself, be curious about potential and go on and attack areas in your life where you aren’t happy,” she said. “This dissatisfaction isn’t a bad thing, we want to allow it to provoke us to change in a positive way. That’s what I want to do on a daily basis even though it’s been a lot. That would be my recommendation to everyone I love — to reflect on positive changes.”