When I went hiking last Saturday, I ran into some friends I hadn’t seen since pre-Covid. We compared notes on how we did during that time. Some had not done as well as others, including one person who had gotten rather sedentary and was noticeably slower than the last time we hiked together. As I’ve discussed previously, I’m a big fan of making fitness fun. But I’ve noticed some peoples’ programs can be more fragile if they only do a single sport (like hiking or biking), and especially if it is only fun for them if they are out in nature and in a group setting. These are two components that got interfered with by Covid shutdowns, and also here in California when we get bad air during wildfire season.
My own program is partially immune to this because I like to do multiple activities (biking, hiking, walking, cross-country skiing, kayaking, and canoeing). And while I love group activities, I also get enjoyment out of doing these solo and treating them as meditation in motion. The multiple activities helped during the Covid shutdown, when hiking groups were the last to open back up (it can be relatively hard to do “social distancing” on trails, especially single-track). I was able to fall back on group biking, which started back up sooner. Biking was also helpful when I was recovering from sciatica when I injured my piriformis muscle, and hiking downhill was painful.
So my first suggestion is to cultivate more activities, especially very simple ones like walking or running that can be squeezed in easily. And it helps if you can make these fun, at least for shorter periods, solo, in case something like Covid interferes with group activities.
This doesn’t help with obstacles like bad air. I admit that I’m a big fan of exercising outdoors, so times when that doesn’t work well are not as fun for me. But I can readily do an indoor workout of at least 30 minutes in length by doing intervals to break it up (I gave tips on that previously, for example here and here). A warmup on a stationary cycle, followed by some brisk intervals, then a cooldown, makes 30 minutes go by quickly. If you can do something like this a couple of times a week, and then also do the equivalent upper body workout a couple of times a week, fitness levels will be kept high, compared to being sedentary.
The only time I ran into trouble was during the summer of 2020, when wildfire season arrived during the first Covid shutdown. I was able to keep in fairly good shape by doing upper body work with hand weights and resistance bands, and brisk walking around in my house. However, I didn’t feel like that was giving me enough intensity for my legs, and did not have a stationary cycle at home (and gyms were still closed). So I tried doing intervals by running up the stairs two at a time. Which worked great, until I injured my piriformis muscle, chronicled in my post “Dealing With a Bit of Sciatica“. That “bit of sciatica” plagues me to this day, and I have to diligently do PT exercises and warm up slowly to keep it at bay. The lesson is not to suddenly try something new using muscles in a way you are not currently accustomed to.
That got me to get a recumbent stationary cycle at home. Which further made me realize how much I enjoy the recumbent cycling position and eventually get one for the road. When wildfires and bad air kept us indoors again this last summer, I was much better prepared and able to sail through it. I’d also like to point out that my stationary cycle cost me about US $200. A low-end version is fine as long as you can get enough resistance and it is quiet (some low-end models are poorly made and squeak or rattle). I know people who have much more expensive home equipment like the Peloton bike, and subscribe to their classes. One friend in my biking group has improved his fitness considerably that way and is now always up at the front during our rides. So if you can afford that and it motivates you, that’s fine. I just wanted to emphasize that you can also get good workouts with a cheaper solution.
One question relevant to today’s topic is “is it better to work out in bad air than to not work out at all?”. Research results on this question were well-covered in a recent article in Ultrarunning magazine by Dr. Tracy Moeg: “The Silent Pandemic of Unhealthy Air”. There is also a good discussion here. There is ample opportunity to study this question because there are places like urban areas in China and Taiwan where the air quality can be bad pretty often. Of course, the best solution is to stay indoors so you’re still working out in clean air. But if you can’t get yourself to do that, the research seems to support that unless the air quality index is unhealthy (like an AQI > 150), or you are a member of a sensitive group such as someone with a lung condition, it is better to work out in bad air than be sedentary.