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How COVID-19 has changed America’s exercise habits

Performance Psychologist, running coach, and author of the book ‘The Brave Athlete’ Dr. Simon Marshall, joined Yahoo Finance Live to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed America’s exercise habits.

Video Transcript


SEANA SMITH: Fitness app Strava releasing its global figures. A brand-new report out for 2020 showing the impact that the pandemic has had on competition and also the impact that it's had on activity.

We want to bring in Dr. Simon Marshall. He's a performance psychologist and professor of behavioral medicine. He's a running coach and author of the book "The Brave Athlete." Very, very busy man. Dr. Marshall, thanks for taking the time to join us today.

Strava has, I was reading, 73 million users. So you really have a pulse on what's going on with people, and it's worldwide, so across the globe. What kind of impact has COVID had on how people are exercising and how they're competing over the last year?

SIMON MARSHALL: Yeah, Jen, this is absolutely true. I mean, the pandemic has disrupted virtually every aspect of our life, and exercise and activity habits are no exception to that. I mean, despite parks closing and facilities closing, I think the global athlete community has spoken-- well, not spoken. Probably pedalled, run, and walked its way to tell us that they don't just want to exercise but they need to exercise.

And so we've seen these trends, quite remarkable trends of increases in swimming and running or outdoor activities in general go through the roof compared to 2019. And so the trends are on the up.

Obviously the downside of this is the reasons why that is, but I think that the overall trend is that exercise seems to have doubled, in many instances, and in some cases it's trebled compared to last year.

JEN ROGERS: So when I was looking at the charts-- and we have one up. Look, when the-- it's different by different countries, but let's just talk about the US. A lot of people started exercising when we were all locked down. But I have to say, it's also fallen off, hasn't it? Like, are we at-- is it just me? I mean, I feel like I'm not exercising at the same level, and I look at the charts, and I see, like, people aren't exercising at the same level. So have we kind of, like, fallen off the path here?

SIMON MARSHALL: Yeah, that's an astute observation. And so what we know, for example, in some of the habit-formation research literature is that there seems to be a sort of a window, and we all know this every year because many of us set New Year's resolutions. And after sort of the middle of February, most of us are back to square one.

And so there seems to be about, particularly when it comes to exercise, this sort of eight-week window whereby we initially get-- we set these rather large, big, audacious goals, and then we kind of slowly gravitate or regress back to those old levels.

But the interesting feature, especially for during the pandemic year, is that those levels aren't going back to levels that we saw in 2019. So exercise habits across the board are up, have stayed elevated, even though we still see some of these short-term declines after sort of six to eight weeks or so.

SEANA SMITH: When you take a look at the activity, it's interesting because activity increased year over year, but it was led by women worldwide. What do you attribute this to?

SIMON MARSHALL: Yeah, I think this is-- you know, on the one hand, it's something to really celebrate. It's the year of exercise, and women are really leading this charge, you know, far more. So, for example, when we take many of the popular forms of exercise like walking and running, women's increases have been almost 50%, 45%, where men have increased for about 25% to 30%.

The interesting question is why that is? And, of course, we know that we do have a little bit more discretionary time, and there might be more time for exercise generally. But perhaps a more worrying trend might be the reasons why, and we know that women have shared a disproportionate burden of some of the mental-health toll that the pandemic has taken and especially because the maternal workforce has been on the decline.

And when you realize that about 70% of parents who have kids under five years of age have had childcare services close and then the burden of childcare responsibility largely falls or has historically fallen-- statistically it has on women.

And so this might be, yes, that's something to celebrate but also sort of a note to say that women are struggling to cope with the stress of that. And as we know, exercise-- and some of the trends in the Strava data tell us that exercise seems to be more therapeutic than in previous years. So if anything, it's that 2020 has been the year of exercise as medicine, that it's having a therapeutic benefit to help us cope with stress and manage all that uncertainty, anxiety that's so common.

JEN ROGERS: 20 seconds left here. We're an investing show. Can you tell us anything about Peloton from this data because it was a huge stock this year. Anything?

SIMON MARSHALL: Well, not [INAUDIBLE] Peloton, but probably exercising indoors generally. We know that the research supports outdoor exercise is far more beneficial to your health. There are lots of reasons why that is. Neuroscience has showed us that areas of the brain are activated when you exercise outdoors compared to indoors that help reduce rumination and worry-- the way our eyes track across the horizon versus when we're focused on a screen.

So there are reasons to be optimistic about getting people outdoors, and the Strava data really show that, that when, as soon as lockdowns ended and exercise indoors went up, people immediately tried to get outdoors and started exercising.