COVID-19 and the Mental/Physical Health Connection

Couch

Researchers have long known that there is a connection between physical and mental health. Physical activity releases hormones that are mood lifters; exercise is not necessarily a cure-all for emotional or mental ills, but it is a contributing factor in better outcomes.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has taken a huge physical toll in our country–not just in terms of the 600,000+ who have died of COVID-related illnesses, but also in terms of the tens of millions who were sickened by the virus but survived (some with long-lasting effects). Even those who were not infected have suffered stress from the situation. Some of that can be attributed to the relationship between lower levels of physical activity during the pandemic (due to closed gyms, group classes being limited, etc.) and negative mental health outcomes.

Idea Fitness Journal’s September-October, 2021, issue reported on a recent study by McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, Canada; the research looked into why people seemed less motivated to be physically active and what the perceived barriers were. The data showed that those whose mental health had worsened the most were also those who were the least physically active; that same group also showed the most improvement when they became more active.

Based on the study, the article suggested that individuals can become more active (and have better mental health outcomes) by:

–Scheduling activities (to eliminate decision-making and choice

–Do activites they personally enjoy

–Listen to their favorite music

–Train with a friend

–Try lower-intensity activiites

–Get creative; use body weight or whatever is available

–Go outside and be in nature.

Of course, another option for those who are demotivated because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, is to turn to on-line classes and training that can be done from home.

The issue is a complicated one and, as I said earlier, more exercise is not a panacea. There can be deeper issues at work that make the thought of more physical activity anxiety-inducing. As always, it is best to check in with healthcare professional if depression or anxiety prevent a person from carrying out activities of daily living, including exercise.

For most people, however, it is just a matter of planning ahead and taking the first step. The rest should come more easily.

Not Going Back to the Gym?

Chicago-approved exit sign

The New York Times ran an article at the beginning of the year that addressed the changes that had occurred in the fitness industry–in particular with fitness facilities–since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It focused on individuals who decided to forego the gym and were willing to pay thousands of dollars for personalized workouts. The examples in the article were somewhat extreme, but they point to a significant trend that has been addressed in later publications as well.

Gyms are having a tough go of it. During the time when gyms were shut down, people invested in equipment to use at home; some spent heavily on products like Mirror, Peloton, weights, mats, etc. I have an elliptical in my home now too! The spending spree continued when gyms re-opened but much of the public was reticent to re-enter them. I work with some clients who have nothing more than a pair of 2-pound dumbbells, but I also have clients with an array of weights, exercise balls, resistance tubes, and cardio equipment such as recumbent bikes and treadmills. With so much invested at home, why return to the gym…and start paying those monthly fees?

Still, there was something that was missing. For many people, it is hard to stay motivated at home. There are those that worry that they may not be using the right equipment or using it correctly. Enter people like me, entrepreneurs who have stepped into the personalized virtual and in-person training domain. I started my business just under a year ago and left the gym where I worked a few months later; my schedule is almost completely full and the inquiries continue on a regular basis.

What I offer is more convenient, less costly, and no less effective. There is no monthly gym membership to pay in addition to my personal training fee; I have much lower overhead and can pass those savings along to my clients. There is no commute–either I come to the client’s home or we Zoom–which is an extra bonus for older adults. There is also no worry about whether the guy coughing on the next treadmill over has been vaccinated or not.

This business model is one that I imagined before the pandemic arrived; the events of the last 18 months only accelerated the demand for it. Offering a niche service–training only older adults–has put me in even higher demand. The next step is finding ever more innovative ways to meet seniors in the virtual and “real” world to help bring fitness to an often-overlooked demographic knowing that many senior adults will never go back to the gym. I am proud of the work that I am doing–and, more importantly, of the results my clients are seeing.

Not going back to the gym? You are part of a growing trend. The next question is: what are you doing to keep yourself fit and healthy as the pandemic drags on…and in the years beyond it?

That Spare Tire…

Dinky Spare Tire

No. Not that spare tire.

CNN recently reported on a difference you might see the next time you see your doctor. Instead of just getting weighed and perhaps calculating your BMI (Body Mass Index), the nurse may measure your waist circumference. Why?

Weight that is carried around the abdomen is especially dangerous. It is an indicator of VAT (Visceral Adipose Tissue). This is more than just the “jelly” you see around your waist; VAT often wraps itself around internal organs and is associated with higher levels of cardiovascular disease.

This is not news per se; we have long known that this kind of fat is dangerous. What is new is the increase that has been seen over the last year–many assume due to the COVID-19 “nineteen.” Some people may have actually put on 19 pounds during the pandemic (due to sitting at home with a house full of food coupled with less activity); even if we have put on less, it is important to realize that the added weight is not just a matter of changing how our clothes fit or our appearance. It has serious health consequences–which is why doctor’s offices are increasingly measuring waist circumference.

We also have different body types. Some folks carry their weight in their bottoms or legs. In any case, eating properly and maintaining a healthy weight and BMI is always a good idea. For those of us–myself included–who are relatively slim but put on weight right in the belly, though, we should be especially cognizant of the risks of VAT.

The article is definitely worth the read. It is not long and it gives easy instructions on how to measure waist circumference and how to interpret what you find.

Knowledge is power…and, in this case, it is also a tool for reaching better health outcomes. Check that spare tire!

The Health Hazard Posed by Racism

RACISM

Over the last few years–but certainly more intensely since the killing of George Floyd–our nation has begun to recognize the serious damage that has been caused by racism. The brunt of that damage, of course, has been felt by minority groups, but many recognize that racism harms all of us.

Although I consider myself an open-minded and empathetic person (who happens to belong to a minority group too), I do not fully understand the challenges faced by others who do not look like me. I have been shielded from much of the hatred, violence, and injustice. The last couple of years have made me more aware of the insidious ways in which racism has infected every corner of society; it has impacted jobs, public safety, self-esteem, the arts, and politics to name just some areas. I have become more attuned to how widespread the problem is.

As someone who is in an allied health profession, I know that the health challenges faced by minorities are different than those faced by the rest of society. Yes, there are certain diseases that are endemic in various communities (Sickle-Cell Anemia among African-Americans and Tay-Sachs among Jews), but socioeconomic conditions almost always contribute to worse health outcomes as well. For instance, lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables in some neighborhoods while fast-food is readily available affects poorer Americans more than others. Scarcity of affordable housing and healthcare as well as substandard education can also contribute to the problem.

An article published last week on http://www.nbcnews.com highlights a recent statement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) that calls racism a “serious threat” to public health. In particular, the CDC claims that racism has “profound and negative impact on communities of color” and is contributing to disproportionate mortality rates among people of color. The article is worth a read for its explanation of why exactly this is an issue. Racism in our society has contributed to the very challenges listed above. One cannot help but pause to consider why minority groups suffer worse health outcomes across a variety diseases (when comparing apples to apples).

I have not read the report from the CDC yet, but from my experience as a personal trainer I know that people from lower socio-economic status are less likely to be able to afford a gym membership, fitness equipment, or access to a trainer. Many minority groups find themselves in that lower socio-economic segment; racism since the birth of this nation has certainly contributed to that overlap.

As a country, we must continue to confront our sad and on-going legacy of racism. As we do, we will more fully understand the myriad ways in which it affects its victims. Ultimately, it affects all of us; as we have seen with COVID-19, viruses do not understand skin color, national origin, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. How is it then that minority communities were so disproportionately affected by the pandemic? Let us be aware of the role that racism plays in all of this; until we recognize it, we cannot hope to find solutions.

Personal Training and the Pandemic

Online Yoga

When the pandemic was just beginning and fitness facilities like the one where I used to work were still open, it was apparent that a tidal wave was headed our way. Within a week, my cancellations went through the roof. When the gym finally closed, I had no idea what the future would hold.

This pandemic has hit Personal Trainers hard: some for the better, some for the worse. An article appeared yesterday on CNN’s website: https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/12/us/personal-trainers-adapt-covid-19/index.html. The author, Amir Vera, discusses the various outcomes for those in an industry that has lost nearly a half-million jobs since COVID-19 came on the scene.

Not surprisingly, there are those trainers who found it difficult, if not impossible, to transition to the new situation. Some trainers (and people, in general), are much more set in their ways and really get thrown for a loop when the rules of the game are changed. Others found ways to pivot and have discovered that not only have they survived the pandemic’s effects, but they are also thriving.

Within days of the closing of my gym, I was on-line offering a daily workout for free. This not only kept some of my clients engaged, but attracted new individuals who were looking for a way to stay active outside of the gym setting. (It also kept me from reverting to a sedentary lifestyle). Within a short time, I was offering one-on-one personal training for free as well. I am grateful that my previous gym paid us a salary (reduced as it was) to allow my fellow trainers and me to do this. There were, of course, those clients for whom virtual was not an option (technical issues or too fragile to work out without direct supervision) and others for whom it was not their cup of tea. Those folks received regular phone calls and emails; I did not want them to forget about me or (more importantly) their own fitness.

When the gym re-opened in June, about 40% of my clients came back. Another 30% stayed on-line (no longer free-of-charge). Another 30% just sort of faded away; I continue to stay in touch every few months, but it is unlikely that I will see them again.

In August, I launched my own business: http://www.athomeseniorfitness.net. It is a niche venture aimed at fitness for older adults. I was lucky to retain many of my previous clients and attracted others through free classes that I offered, advertising in a local paper, and word of mouth. Even though my hours are still less than they were at the height of my career at the gym before the pandemic, I am actually making more money now than I did then.

Most importantly, the pandemic forced me out of my comfort zone. I had to get creative. Every day I had to come up with a new group workout. Every day I had to think about how to provide modifications for those with less ability and those with more. Every day I had to consider how to reach out to clients and keep track of their progress. I also had to learn how to best use technology and adjust workouts to a virtual platform while remaining effective and safe. In a way, have had a shorter time in the industry probably helped me to make all these transitions; I was too new at it to be set in my ways. It made me a way better trainer than I was before. Without the pandemic, I do not know if I would have ever had the impetus and opportunity to start my own business.

I always try to look for the silver linings in my life when things go sideways. The pandemic pushed me to be the best trainer I can be and the results are encouraging. Those trainers who are just waiting it out until things go back to “normal” may be disappointed. Like everything else, some of the changes brought by COVID-19 are here to stay.

As for me, I look forward to the challenges and rewards that this new landscape presents–with my sincere hope that those affected by COVID-19 have a complete and speedy recovery.

At the Gym: To Mask or Not to Mask…

Face masks, Japan

Ohio has had in place masking orders for those in public for quite a while now. These orders are based on the solid science showing that wearing a face mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the more people masking the more effective it is.

There are, of course, exceptions to the governor’s order, including gyms and fitness facilities. Where I work, the policy is that a mask must be worn in the building except while you are working out–which, if you asked me (and you didn’t), is the same as having no policy at all.

I have seen the following scenarios where I work. Adults and especially teens will wear the mask into the building but take it off the minute they walk into the fitness center; some even place it in their mini-locker. I have seen unmasked members with earbuds singing out loud to their music–annoying during normal times, but especially germ-spreading during a pandemic. I have seen members sitting on different pieces of equipment or benches talking to each other across the gym without masks. I have seen members use equipment and not wipe it off afterwards.

To be fair, there are those who are very cautious. I have seen members wearing a mask at all times–even while doing cardio (as I do). I have also seen members being conscientious about wiping down equipment. In the final analysis, I don’t know how much good this does when there are so many others who seem to throw caution to the (literal) wind.

We have had one employee of the Fitness Center and one member in recent weeks diagnosed with COVID-19; neither was asymptomatic. I think we are lucky it hasn’t been worse. What solutions are out there? Some establishments (in the fitness industry and elsewhere) make a point of enforcing hygienic standards. Employees and supervisors make sure that folks are compliant, and if they are not they are made to leave the facility. They believe (and rightly so) that the “honor system” doesn’t work with this pandemic. I spoke with a family member a couple of days ago who teaches yoga at a fitness facility; the facility is “open” for 90 minutes then “closed” for 30 minutes during which time the entire building is fogged with disinfectant. This seems extreme, but I’m willing to bet that this place has a lot more people coming through their doors as opposed to the masses who are staying away out of concern for disease transmission. It seems to me that fitness facilities should be going above and beyond rather than aiming for the bare minimum; it would seem to fit into our mission of promoting health and wellness.

The fitness world has a long way to go in this pandemic to make facilities safer. In the meantime, my recommendation is to PUT ON THE DAMN MASK! If you are strong enough to bench press (insert your max.) pounds, you can do it with a mask on as well; remember, weight lifting is an anaerobic activity. As for cardio, unless it is really intense (like running), a mask should only impede airflow slightly; the Nu-Step or a stationary bicycle can probably be used with a mask.

As for my own practice, I keep the mask on always. I will find the days when it is warm enough outside to run outside. If I am doing a cardio workout, I will do it at home. If we all are a little more conscientious about safety/health precautions we can help bring an end to this pandemic. Start by wearing your mask.

A Heartbreaking Side-Effect of COVID-19

Stress

By now, most of us are familiar with the symptoms, illness and too often death that result from COVID-19. It is has stressed nearly everyone…and that stress is having a negative effect as well.

The most recent issue of AARP Bulletin reported on a recent study published in JAMA Network Open (part of the Am erican Medical Association) noting increased cases of Stress Cardiomyopathy since the beginning of the pandemic. Stress Cardiomyopathy is often known as “broken heart syndrome;” great sadness or other major upset can actually cause heart muscles to weaken. This phenomenon was studied at the Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic-Akron General, where incidences of Stress Cardiomyopathy increased from 1.7% of patients before the pandemic to 7.8% between March 1 and April 30, 2020–when the full effects of COVID-19 were becoming known and affecting our lives.

Must we just sit back and take it? Must we allow our hearts to take a beating? Grant Reed, a cardiologist cited in the article, suggests that those feeling overwhelmed by the stress of the situation should share that information with their medical provider. In other words, this is not just an emotional issue, but a physiological one as well. The article noted that the symptoms of Stress Cardiomyopathy look a lot like the warning signs of a heart attack: chest pain and shortness of breath among them.

One line of defense is to work on reducing stress. We all have our own ways of dealing with it (I listen to Earth, Wind and Fire), but we may want to think about meditating (or prayer if that is a part of your tradition) and connecting with family and friends–even if that means over the phone or virtually, and only those family members who won’t stress you out even more!

Finally, exercise is also a great way to reduce stress. Physical activity can release hormones that make us happier called endorphins. Even if you cannot get to the gym, there are other ways to keep active like going for a brisk walk, riding a bike, on-line workouts, etc.

Many of us are indeed broken-hearted about the loss of life and suffering caused by COVID-19. Let’s do what we can to reduce our stress and build our immunity through exercise, proper rest, good nutrition and connections with others. Nobody wants to test negative to COVID-19 only to fall ill to the stress associated with it. Let’s take care of ourselves.

Fitness as the Leaves are Starting to Turn

Autumn

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but here in Cleveland, the leaves are just beginning to turn colors. The forecast for the next 14 days also shows a downward trend in daytime temperatures. Within 3 weeks, autumn will officially be here.

What does this have to do with fitness? Many of us use these warmer days to get exercise outside: running, swimming, biking, etc. As the weather gets cooler (and, yes, snowier), these activities will be affected. We just won’t be able to be active outside as we are during the summer months.

This is nothing new, but this year with COVID-19, there are added implications. Even though many gyms are open in some form or other, many folks (especially older adults) have stayed away. I have seen firsthand and heard/read about how lax or strict certain facilities are about mask usage and cleaning of equipment. Those who are in risk categories have every reason to be concerned. And now, the great outdoors–where the risk is very low–may not be as hospitable as it has been.

I have already begun training one client on her back patio and she has propane heaters for the coming months. [BTW, if you haven’t gotten yours yet, it’s worth considering.] This is Cleveland, though, and eventually we’ll either have to go inside or switch to virtual.

Two things continually strike me about virtual training, and they are somewhat incompatible. First, a lot of people do not want to do online training because they think it’s not “real;” after all, how can you get a good workout over your computer? I have some clients who I haven’t trained since March and they are “waiting” for things to settle down with the Coronavirus epidemic to go back to the gym; virtual training doesn’t enter their realm of possibilities. As for things settling down soon, “don’t hold your breath.” Literally. Second, those who do train virtually to a person attest to the fact that the workouts are effective and not at all “fake.” I have several clients who tell my how amazed they are at the workouts–especially given the limited equipment they have. It is still possible to work hard and train every muscle group even without the fancy equipment at a gym. This is why you have certified personal trainers; this is what we do.

Autumn is nigh. Decisions will need to be made. Sitting on the couch and doing nothing until it warms up again is not a good option; the less we keep ourselves fit, the more vulnerable we are to infection and illness. There are options–and online training is certainly one of them for those who don’t feel comfortable/safe going into a gym.

How will you get through the cold months in fitness and in health? Start planning now; there will be a rush.

The President Needs to Be a Bigger A$$hole

Donald Trump

It has been stated that leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand. [John Ortberg]

This means that being a leader isn’t about being like necessarily, or making others happy. Being a leader often means having to make difficult decisions that will disappoint others. The key is knowing how to do that and when to do that.

Disappointing others often means being an asshole. Let me explain. We’ve all been in that situation when we were about to do something stupid–maybe with a group of friends–and there is that one asshole who tells us how wrong it is, gets us to understand the long-term repercussions, and eventually talks us out of it. At the time, we are disappointed, but eventually we are grateful that they saved us from what could have been a tragic situation. They have disappointed us, but at a pace we can stand.

What we need now is for President Trump to be that asshole with COVID-19. Right now all the states are doing their own thing. Things are a mess and it is out of control. There is no one leader at the top telling us all the right thing to do; on the contrary, for a variety of reasons the President has avoiding doing this all along. It may be because he is afraid that he’ll appear weak or, more likely, because he does not want to disappoint American citizens by making us do something unpopular…like enforcing the wearing of masks, social distancing, and closing establishments that cannot guarantee a reasonable level of safety. Nobody wants to be an asshole, but often it is the asshole who saves our asses.

President Trump, we need you now–more than ever–to be that asshole. We need you to disappoint us by telling us we cannot do whatever we want. We need you to disappoint us by telling us that freedom also comes with responsibility. We need you to disappoint us by demanding that we all do what is necessary to control the spread of this virus before it wreaks further havoc on our health and our livelihoods.

Mr. Trump, we need you to be an asshole. I’m pretty sure you’re up to the task; you’ve been one before. More, now than ever, we need you to disappoint us. Please be the leading asshole in nation.

COVID-19 Gym Trickle-Down

trickling falls--so little rain here lately

We are living in an oxymoronic world. Many states and cities are continuing to “open up,” while infection rates for COVID-19 are surging.

It is true that the economy added more jobs than expected last month, but that reporting was from before the “second wave” made its appearance in full force. I am not an economist, but from my little corner of the fitness world, it looks to me like we are in for a lot more pain before it gets better.

My gym began a phased opening at the beginning of June. Before that, I was training clients on-line–at first, free of charge (the JCC paid a salary based on my previous paychecks), and after May 15 at the regular training rate. Needless to say, business for me is way down; it is true of many of other personal trainers too. I may be hit especially hard because I train many seniors and super-seniors who are especially vulnerable to infection and complications/death (and therefore don’t won’t come to the gym) and who are also skittish about using on-line platforms for their workouts. I know that many of them who truly benefited from their training regimens pre-COVID are rapidly losing fitness ground.

Additionally, because of the limitations on how many folks can use the gym at a given time (and even then by appointment only), there are less people at the gym and fewer folks taking tours and joining. This results in less opportunities to meet people and build my business. So, things are not great and there are few signs of much improvement. On the contrary, with the current surge (and no end in sight) it could get much worse.

If folks cannot come into the gym, they may wonder why they are paying monthly membership. I’ve lost a few clients this way as well. Their feeling is that they should not have to pay the same membership fees to train on-line as in-person; they are not using the building, its locker rooms, cardio equipment, pool, etc., so way pay for all that?

This becomes a downward spiral that affects trainers and gym facilities. Even those gyms that just threw open their doors at the first chance will likely see another downturn as infections rise and fears along with them. ow will they build their business?

Of course, if I am making less money as a trainer, that means I have less money to spend on all kinds of other things which in turn further weakens the economy. It is a vicious cycle and the federal government IMHO is not showing enough leadership and creativity.

Personal Training is only one example. The same thing is happening in spectator sports, restaurants, houses of worship. Things are spiraling downward.

It is clear to me that without appropriate and speedy intervention OR a radical make-over of the industry OR effective vaccines/treatments, gyms will not survive. People are not willing to risk their lives to improve their health/fitness.

In the meantime, I am doing my best, trying to motivate my clients and be the best trainer I can be. Hopefully my efforts will trickle down and water some seeds that lead to growth–not only for me, but for my clients, and the economy. There is a long, arduous road ahead.