Well-Being Mental Health

How to (safely) stay active while at home due to coronavirus — and why it’s so important

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Story at a glance

  • A countrywide directive to stay indoors and socially isolate has been lengthened to the end of April as numbers of those infected by COVID-19 continue to climb.
  • Feelings of isolation and stagnation can cause an increase in stress levels, which directly affect physical and mental health.
  • Incorporating physical activity and intentional breathing into your daily routine can boost your mood and keep you healthy through this uncertain time.

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, has effectively been keeping Americans indoors for the past few weeks in the name of social distancing — the act of being at least the necessary 6 feet away from others to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Despite best efforts, the virus is hitting the U.S. hard, with the number of stateside cases now surpassing Italy and China. More than 164,000 confirmed infections have been recorded as of Tuesday morning, and more than 3,000 Americans have died from the virus. 

With that and coaxing from Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci in mind, President Trump announced on Sunday that the White House will keep its guidelines for social distancing in place through the end of April — a deviation from his statement on Fox News last week that he hoped the country could be “opened up” by Easter. 

As Americans plan to hunker down for another month spent indoors, the threat of cabin fever becomes all the more real. Many people, especially those living in small city apartments like those found in New York City, lack ample space and access to private outdoor areas in which to move around in and are thus at an even greater risk of suffering from the negative effects of cabin fever such as depression, unhealthy weight gain, loss of strength and endurance, weaker bones, hormonal imbalances and poor blood circulation.

“Self isolation has the potential to negatively affect people by instilling feelings of fear and loneliness, which is why it’s especially important to prioritize physical health during this time,” says Joey Gonzalez, the co-founder and CEO of popular fitness studio Barry’s

Luckily, Barry’s and other popular fitness studios like Barre3, Peloton and Alo Yoga have begun offering at-home workouts for people to try from the safety of their own living room, and most require minimal equipment and only a yoga mat’s worth of space. Taking advantage of at-home workouts are a good way to inject some much-needed movement into your day by reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration and enhancing overall cognitive function.

“Physical activity is paramount to maintaining a healthy immune system, now more than ever. It’s important to take care of ourselves, our bodies, and each other. Aside from the health benefits it also has a significant impact on mental health,” says Gonzalez. “For me, exercise has always been the best way to clear my mind, relax, and reset. With so much negativity in the world right now, it’s important to support one another both in and out of the Red Room [at Barry’s] and to continue to bring positive energy into the world.”

Setting yourself up for success

The easiest way to incorporate some movement into your days spent at home is by making room for it in your daily routine, and these breaks don’t have to be long either: scientists have found that even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.

There are tons of positive effects for creating a daily routine, too, providing an anchor of comfort for us during an otherwise uncertain time. “Routine helps us cope with change, it helps to create healthy habits, and more importantly, it helps to reduce stress levels,” says Danielle Forshee, a Doctor of Psychology and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. “When your life is organized and set in a routine, you know exactly what to expect. This takes out the guessing of what is coming, alleviating the symptoms of anxiety. When we have routine, it actively works to respond to symptoms of mental health conditions and thoughts that may be making your life difficult.”

Try picking a few quick online workout regimens that you enjoy, such as Melissa Wood Health’s quick yoga and pilates videos or easy HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workouts by Kayla Itsines. Set yourself a daily reminder to turn one on in the morning before you open up your laptop for the day, should you be working from home. 

Tapping into mental exercise 

Staying active doesn’t just mean pushups and squats, though, as keeping your mind active is just as important for reducing levels of stress. 

Humans actually have a built-in negative bias, meaning we see threats even when they’re not there. For all Americans who are cooped up indoors that threat response is most likely active right now — forcing our raised levels of threat chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline to drown out those that make us feel relaxed and happy, such as serotonin or dopamine.

Even 10 minutes of drawn out, paced breathing can help alleviate those feelings of stress and is an easy way to work mental health practices into your evening routine to ensure some restful sleep that night. Gonzalez tells us that he practices meditation for 10 to 15 minutes every morning. 

“It’s tremendously helped me focus my efforts on what’s important and adapt effectively during these times,” he says. “When I’m not working, I’m spending quality time with my husband and kids. My husband and I are taking advantage of this time at home and are enjoying finding creative ways to keep the kids occupied, whether it’s playing outside in the backyard or cooking together.”

Time spent with loved ones is an important tool for keeping stress levels down, whether you’re together in-person or by virtual means such as FaceTime, as limited physical contact can actually have a quick-acting negative impact on our oxytocin levels. Even the act of smiling at others boosts your levels of the feel-good chemical, and if they smile back you get an added dopamine boost.