Coronavirus and exercise: how to stay fit by walking, running and cycling (at a distance)

Under new government guidelines, you can leave the house once a day to exercise. Here's how to use that option wisely

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what exercise is safe can i walk go for a run and still cycle coornavirus lockdown
Just because it feels like life’s on hold doesn’t mean your fitness is the same

When the Prime Minister effectively banished us to our houses in his extraordinary address to the nation on Monday 23 March, he did allow us one small mercy: the chance to leave our homes once a day for exercise. Stay indoors to fight coronavirus, we were told – apart from that moment every day when it all gets too much and you have to walk, cycle, or run off some energy.

The Prime Minister’s intervention was clearly designed to protect the NHS – ministers had become increasingly alarmed by the sheer amount of people flouting social distancing rules – but not for the first time over the past few weeks, the new guidelines seemed to leave almost as many questions as they answered. For example: if we can all go out for a walk once a day, aren’t we going to see exactly the same pictures of perambulator-packed parks that we saw last weekend?

Richmond Park in London was busy over the weekend Credit: Rick Findler

Still, the advice remains, and so too does the fact that staying fit is part of being healthy, even in a lockdown. Just because it feels like life’s on hold doesn’t mean your fitness is the same: you’re eating calories that need to be burned, and quite likely working long hours a day at a desk in a posture that needs stretching out.

Here’s how the experts suggest you follow the government’s advice and make the most of your one bit of exercise a day.

Can I go for walk?

Fitness experts agree that walking is hard to beat as the best basic exercise of choice – and it could offer even more advantages than you think. “Walking will benefit your emotional and spiritual side as well as physical,” explains sports scientist Joanna Hall, creator of the exercise programme Walkactive.

Aim for 30 minutes, she says, five times a week – but don’t fret if you can’t manage more than 10 minutes. “Consistency is the most important thing,” says Hall. “Our bodies respond well to routine.”

Joanna Hall offers her classes for people stuck in isolation

Hall is sensitive to the fact that walking is less enticing if you don’t live in the countryside or with access to green spaces. But, she says, “there are benefits to city walking: smooth pavements and regular lampposts to use for target setting, steep hills which will tone your legs, and the chance to explore your neighbourhood in a new way.”

If you live in a crowded part of a city, you may be worried about keeping your two-metre distance from other pedestrians. “Why not go out when the sun’s just up,” says Hall, pointing out that the clocks go forward this weekend, “or make the most of the longer evenings when key workers should have finished their commutes.”

She also recommends you use walking time in a mindful way: ‘Listen for five sounds, look for four colours, identify three smells, two different sensations like the breeze on your face and think one positive thought of gratitude.’

Dog walking

One of the reasons many of us walk at all is to take our faithful friends out for a run. However, new rules around quarantine don’t mean dogs are an excuse to get out more than once, says the Kennel Club. Households with two or more adults can take it in turns to walk their dog if they usually go more than once a day, its spokesperson confirms. 

If you are self-isolating and showing symptoms you are advised not to leave your home for any reason, including walking your dog. What isn’t known yet is whether someone can walk your dog for you; the Kennel Club is seeking clarification. In Spain, where restrictions on leaving your house are stricter, some owners have tried renting their dogs to others who want to be allowed to walk. One man in the city of Palencia has even been caught walking a toy dog and now faces a fine.

Is it safe to go for a run?

This probably isn’t a good time to take up running from scratch, says personal trainer Kathryn Freeland of Stede Court Private Fitness Retreat, in Kent. And, if you live in a city or town, she politely suggests spending hours running around the only available spaces or roads may not be the public spirited thing to do: it could mean others don’t feel there is safe space to run or walk at all.

Instead, she suggests runners mix up their training to work on strength and flexibility, which can get neglected. Try a mix of yoga and High Intensity Intermittent Training (HIIT) – short bursts of high energy exercise. 

If you can find a small area of empty outdoor space, Freeland suggests you put down a mat and mark a two-metre circle, then do circuit exercises on the spot like burpees and plank jogging (put your hands on the floor, hold your back straight in a press-up position, and jog your legs back and forth). “Anything is better than nothing,” she adds. “You can even do circuits inside using furniture as props and then have a walk outside.”

Can we still go on family bike rides?

While cycling is very much an approved form of exercise - the government has identified bike shops as an essential business that can stay open - you are not allowed to go out with friends. It’s strictly cycling solo or with members of your household, says Cycling UK. 

The same organisation recommends that cycling for your commute is better than taking public transport and it’s also a good way to do the shopping. 

As for the Lycra-clad, you might want to consider slowing down a touch: with fewer cars on the road, the temptation to try Tour de France speeds could be irresistible, but we all have a lot on our minds at the moment. Colliding with a pedestrian – or an inanimate object for that matter – would cause more stress on the NHS. Something you should be actively trying to avoid.

Pilates

You don’t have to miss out on your Pilates, yoga or other bodywork classes, says Leicestershire-based trainer Louise Humphrey of Studio 44 Pilates, who is currently offering free 10-minute sessions online via Facebook live. Stretching is particularly important at the moment because many of us will be sitting down more than usual, and that means weaker gluteal muscles.

“You can combine a session of Pilates indoors with a walk outdoors,” says Humphrey. “10 minutes is fine. Doing it daily, you’ll notice the difference even over the next three weeks.”

Louise Humphrey is a Pilates Teacher who is transfering her business to the virtual world as a way to combat coronavirus

She says these exercise sessions are particularly helpful for the over 40s – even those in their 70s and 80s. “Pilates is very safe. Know your limits and be careful as you would with any new exercise.”

Although there have been reports of outdoor sessions being set up in some areas – participants kept at a correct distance apart – Humphrey does not like the idea. “That’s not complying with the new rules about only spending time with your household,” she points out. Better to take your walk, then find a class to follow online.

Can I still play golf?

Golfers who may have thought a solitary round would qualify will be unlucky: the governing body England Golf says clubs, courses and facilities in England must now close. But a lot of golfers are embracing the #golfathome campaign on Twitter and Instagram, which shows England Golf coaches, players and enthusiasts offering tips to help you improve your swing – or new ways to have fun - in your garden. Or in some cases, your sitting room.  

Is horse riding safe?

The situation for equestrians is tricky. There are no specific government guidelines for riding at present, says the British Horse Society. “We advise that it is not appropriate to put unnecessary pressure on the emergency services and everyone should make their own individual decision as to whether riding is necessary at this time.”