Our heath in lockdown

Exercise in the absence of formal sport

What did we do when we couldn’t play sport? And what will it take to get us back? Some clues are emerging.

When the nation went into lockdown several months ago, there were four exemptions for those wanting to leave home: one of them was to exercise. You could take the dog, go to the park, run, bend, squat, lean, jump and jog. You might be able to stride around several blocks with a member of your household. There were bicycle paths you could explore, safe in the knowledge that as you returned to riding your bike after several years that fewer cars on the road made it a potentially safer journey

Exercise suddenly became something that was central to our new life – it got us out of the house, it got us away from screens, it helped us burn off the pent-up energy.

And as every piece of official advice reminded us, exercise was an excellent way to preserve good mental health.

So how did we go? Did the opportunity to exercise mean more of us did? Did exercise become the replacement for the entertainment or social activities that we weren’t able to do? How committed to exercise were we? And perhaps most importantly, will we stay the distance, and keep doing it when the pandemic threat eases?

Now two researchers and a team from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) have embarked on a study to find out how we exercised during the lockdown and try to make sense of just how we spent our time in the absence of formal sport. It will be a two-year study that will provide regular updates on how we’re going.

“We’ll be able to see if these new changes have become the norm or whether people will rebound once the restrictions are lifted,’’ Dr Kate Parker, lecturer in physical activity and health at Deakin University’s, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, says.

The usual approach would be to try to find a baseline comparison before a large change in behaviour such as this occurs. However, as Kate’s co-project leader and IPAN Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Lauren Arundell says, no one anticipated this pandemic, so we had to act quickly and ask what participants were doing before COVID-19 and during lockdown.

“But there are national guidelines about how much physical activity and screen time Australians should have, across four age groups,’’ she says.

Those guidelines go by the stern title of Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines and the Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines, on the Department of Health website.

Dr Kate Parker, Lecturer, Deakin University's IPAN
Dr Lauren Arundell, Research Fellow, Deakin University's IPAN

There is some other information, but not much for co-project leaders Kate and Lauren to work with. “We know for example that only one in 10 adolescents are meeting the guidelines and that’s very similar when we hit adults and older adults,’’ Lauren says. “Unfortunately, we see physical activity levels decline with age. As a group we have looked at promoting health behaviours for a long time but the current situation really caused us to pause and almost reset because a lot of the factors influencing physical activity and sports participation are changing.’’

Central to the research is the understanding that what used to distinguish physical activity for many Australians was organised sport: it might have been social, sporadic or connected to an elite competition, but the range of organised team sports were early lockdown casualties. The consequence of this change – and the channelling of physical activity into solo exercise, yoga, Pilates or even screen-driven programs in-home lounge rooms – is the sort of change the research will identify and track.

 “So what we are planning to do is use the information from this study to work with stakeholders at a higher level to promote physical activity,’’ Lauren says, “to not only get people active during a lockdown phase but after it – what is required for people to re-engage with sport and activity or take it up.''

“That’s one really great thing that this research can do – help us identify groups and what’s important for each of these groups to achieve those guidelines.’’

The other consequence of these recreational changes surviving the lockdown may well be for government policy around parks and open spaces – do councils have enough? Should there be more recreational areas included in suburban developments? And perhaps if organised sport that has been the social glue for many communities doesn’t return to that primacy, what replaces it?

 There is plenty of scope for the study to explore the potential upsides of the new exercise regime. “Being out and about in the park and walking with your family may bring a lot of benefits that people were lacking before in their busy lifestyles,’’ Kate explains. “Preliminary data tells us that during lockdown, a larger proportion of families were walking together and for longer than previously. This is one of the potential positives to come from the current situation. We’re not sure at this stage what’s going to happen in the long term. We will be collecting data that will enable us to determine which activities and recreations are better or worse for mental health and overall health and well-being over time.’’

There are 6000 respondents engaged in the national survey, but the investigation, according to both researchers, is inevitably exploratory: no one has been able to look at this question before because the circumstances are unique. But the research will canvas a range of factors, including breaking down activities across age ranges (from 13 to 75), and the use of screens – for schoolwork, social interaction, leisure and exercise.

“One of the questions we’ve asked is: ‘What do you need to get back to your sport?’, the sort of barriers may include the high-level things we don’t have any control over, such as job losses, the financial perspective,’’ Lauren says. “Other items we’re asking is are they worried about contracting the virus if they return to contact sport and those types of things. Indeed, our preliminary findings suggest that reduced or flexible pricings and increased cleaning and virus prevention procedures are important for their return to sport.”

The advantage of the longitudinal study is that the regular updates will provide on-going insights. “We’re aiming to have our next survey out in August,’’ Lauren says. “It’ll be really interesting to see where the state and the country will be then, and the impact this is having on sport and recreation.’’

The project’s in-kind support has been provided by Sport and Recreation Victoria, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, Victorian Department of Education, Sport Australia, VicSport, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and the National Heart Foundation of Australia.

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