Exercise during COVID-19: here's why it's important and how to get it done safely

Written by Sheena Batura, MS, RDN, LD. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

At a time when we’re all being encouraged to stay home and remain socially distant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many people are facing an abrupt break in their usual physical activity routine. Fitness tracker companies like Fitbit and Evidation and other researchers have noted a decline in steps per day since the start of social distancing. With gyms, recreational centers, and even some popular fitness trails closed or limiting patrons, it might mean getting creative and pivoting to a new exercise regimen.

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The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend 150-300 minutes per week (or essentially minimum 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week) of moderate-intensity, aerobic physical activity—and a minimum of 2-3 sessions per week of strength training. Prior to stay-at-home orders only 54% of Americans were meeting these guidelines. (Note: it’s important to check in with your healthcare provider prior to starting any new fitness program.)

Exercise supports immune function and may help to prevent the onset of chronic illnesses

In a time where we protect the health of both ourselves and others by limiting contact, it’s also important to keep our own health and wellbeing in mind. Regular physical activity reduces the incidence of chronic illnesses (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, and cancer) and is protective against communicable infections, such as bacterial and viral infections. Consistent exercise training has an overall anti-inflammatory influence, and may also support older adults experiencing the natural decline of immune function.

Taking care of both physical and mental health

A recent review examined the psychological impact of quarantine and found that confinement, loss of usual routine, reduced physical and social contact with others were frequently shown to cause boredom, frustration, and a sense of isolation from the rest of the world, which was distressing to the participants. And those with a prior history of anxiety or depression may even feel prolonged effects for months after quarantine is lifted.

Increased stress levels can lead to loss of sleep, which can increase the potential for health problems. Starting or continuing an exercise routine can be an effective way to combat feelings of boredom, frustration, and stress.

Stuck inside? Make the living room your gym

With so many of us turning to electronics during this time, we literally have a personal trainer or fitness “class” at our fingertips. Finding an exercise app or video has never been easier, so find something you enjoy, whether it be yoga, HIIT training, or a dance class.

Make a piece of furniture or object part of your indoor training. Have a couch or chair? Try doing a raised plank, or tricep dips. Don’t have weights, but keep a case of water on-hand? No problem! Try your hand at resistance training with a household item like a case of water, or water bottles. Set a timer on your phone to remind yourself of your planned activities.

Here’s a list of indoor activities to consider while you’re stuck at home:

  • Jumping rope, high knees or jumping jacks
  • Stair stepping (No stairs? Grab a sturdy chair)
  • Yoga (a really great way to manage stress)
  • Dancing
  • Video or app-based workouts (HIIT or other full-body workout videos)
  • Resistance bands
  • Water bottle “weights” (up it to milk jugs if it’s too easy)
  • Home cardio machines (if owned)

You can also use your furniture (yep, you read that right):

  • Squats or sit-to-stands from a sturdy chair or couch
  • Wall squats (with or without a stability ball)
  • Push-ups against a wall, the kitchen counter or the floor
  • Lunges or single leg step-ups on stairs
  • Legs-elevated planks on a chair or couch (definitely ditch the shoes for this one)

The great outdoors (while remaining socially distant)

Keeping six feet away from others may feel challenging depending on the activities or sports you usually participate in. Depending on where you live, your favorite running trails may have been closed due to local government official’s orders.

Nonetheless, continuing to exercise outside is still possible, and especially important since being outside is also important when it comes to mental and physical health. Still, it’s important to be mindful and stay six-feet apart from others, mask up, practice proper hand hygiene or sanitation and pay attention to local ordinances.

Here’s a list of outdoor activities to consider during self-isolation–and make sure to grab your mask:

  • Walk, jog, or run in your neighborhood or local park (if open)
  • Walk your dog
  • City dweller? Find a staircase to climb and descend
  • Roller skate or take a bicycle ride
  • Grow a garden or do lawn work
  • Take HIIT training or yoga outdoors to a greenspace
  • Hiking

Completely new to exercise? Here are some tips that might help

If you’re seeing this as your moment to make a change for better health, like starting a fitness routine for the first time in a while, there are some key aspects to keep in mind, including checking in with your healthcare provider prior to starting to ensure that you’re safe.

  • Start small, build upon a baseline, and don’t overdo it
  • Find an activity you enjoy—if you like it, you’re more likely to see it as a lifestyle change vs a short-term hobby
  • Set a SMART fitness goal (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely)
  • Keep track of your daily and long-term fitness achievements with a journal, whiteboard calendar or app
  • Always keep your water handy and stay hydrated

Not sure where to begin? Below are some resources for varying fitness levels:


1. Trends in Meeting the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines (2008-2018). Centers for Disease Control. URL. Accessed July 15, 2020.

2. Campbell John P., Turner James E. (2018) Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan. Frontiers in Immunology. Vol 9. Pp. 648. DOI=10.3389/fimmu.2018.00648

3. Nieman, David C., Wentz, Laurel M. (2019) The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science. Vol 8. Issue 3. Pp. 201-217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009

4. Brooks, Samantha K., Webster, Rebecca K., Smith, Louise E., et al. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet. Vol 395. Issue 10227. Pp. 912-920. doi.org:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30460-8

5. Pearson, David G., Craig Tony. (2014) The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology. Vol 5. Pp. 1178. DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178

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