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Releasing Adaptive Capacity and Physical Activity Habits: Preparing for life after COVID-19

As the global lockdown response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues, social isolation is essential. In day-to-day function so too is maintaining physical distance from others. Yet, UK residents are encouraged to remain active once a day. Has this “exercise allocation” released our adaptive capacity regarding physical activity (PA)?

Releasing Adaptive Capacity and Physical Activity Habits Preparing for life after COVID19

There is no situation, there is no age, there is no condition where exercise is not a good thing. So, anything that can be done to encourage people and allow people to take exercise is clearly a good thing”: Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England.

As the global lockdown response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues, social isolation is essential. In day-to-day function so too is maintaining physical distance from others. Yet, UK residents are encouraged to remain active once a day. Has this “exercise allocation” released our adaptive capacity regarding physical activity (PA)?

While there is an unassailable Public Health case for engaging in regular PA, it is hard to change behaviour using information. It is more effective to prompt people into action when the action manages how they feel. Chris Witty’s endorsement acknowledges that PA has powerful, positive feeling effects; these range from mental health and wellbeing effects to managing and reducing the side effects of anxiety disorders and depression1. Equally, even relatively small reductions in daily step counts can bring depression in previously healthy young people.

Perspectives on PA engagement have clearly shifted. COVID-19 may have brought more societal change than years of Public Health advocacy. Many individuals are rediscovering the enjoyment and satisfaction benefits of outdoor exercise2. Others are trying out new online options by doing exercise classes via Zoom. Social media challenges such as “run 5, nominate 5, donate 5” are more prevalent and often encourage non-runners to join Strava. The trend for exercise snacking appeals to those who want their PA in 5-minute bouts.

Adapting to our “new normal” requires us to establish new distinctions between home and work. This new context gives the opportunity to change daily routines. Dedicating the time previously used for commuting to, say, walking and using PA to signal the end of the working day will help to do more PA at home. In this way, some are modifying old habits (e.g., commuting), while others are making new behavioural adjustments (e.g., PA to end the workday). Enticingly, and without doing anything to ensure it occurs, many live with the fantasy that post-lockdown will bring a better lifestyle. Behavioural science can take us beyond that level of wishful thinking.

After lockdown we face a new normal. Lockdown simplified daily life to make home-based PA easy. Post-lockdown PA will revert to relying on the complicated decision-making that used to make PA so challenging. After all, it is far simpler to do PA at home than to do all the paraphernalia of gym classes; packing gym kit, driving to the gym, showering, and so on. That new normal will be turbulent and it makes sense to plan for it. Start today. It will take time to build an understanding of what will work for you. Lockdown has refocused many on their life priorities by activating the ‘fresh start effect’. This occurs when a break from ‘normal’ (e.g., birthdays, anniversaries, holidays) creates space for reimagining ourselves and our preferred futures. ‘Fresh start’ can release the full power of our adaptive capacities in the post-lockdown too.

Importantly, learn how to support your new PA habits without the simplification brought by enforced lockdown. Using the deliberative process of ‘habit transfer’ will be a powerful force for good. Habit transfer involves using what has worked in one context to another, using the same underlying processes and skills. Telling your friends and contacts about that process will also help them to establish new social norms for both PA and for using habit transfer. In that process, we reposition ourselves – because of our influence on creating those norms – as social influencers. The resulting ‘social buzz’ around PA will then make our own PA easier.

Use those approaches to learn what works for you. Then plan how to transfer your new skills to the time when lockdown is done. Plan for the inevitable ‘tensions’ and pinch points that will come as PA reverts to being more demanding. That will support achieving your preferred future.  

Alexandra J. Potts and Jim McKenna

References

  1. Saxena, S., Van Ommeren, M., Tang, K. C., & Armstrong, T. P. (2005). Mental health benefits of physical activity. Journal of Mental Health, 14(5), 445–451. doi:10.1080/09638230500270776.
  2. Thompson Coon, J., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J., & Depledge, M. H. (2011). Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environmental Science & Technology, 45, 1761–1772. doi:10.1021/es102947t.
McKenna

About the Authors

Professor James McKenna

Jim McKenna is Carnegie Professor of Physical Activity and Health and Head of the Active Lifestyles Research Centre in the Carnegie Faculty.

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Dr Alexandra Potts

Alexandra is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working on the Active Calderdale Sport England funded Local Delivery Pilot (LDP). Alexandra works to evaluate system changes within the LDP and document these alongside case study stories.

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