Among the many aspects of our lives shaken up by the pandemic is the way we exercise. During the first lockdown, with gyms closed and millions of us ditching our commutes, we saw an explosion in the popularity of home workouts. Joe Wicks was the most high profile of an array of fitness influencers, offering live daily classes online to help the country keep fit without leaving the house. We didn’t need the gym, it transpired; we didn’t even need to put our trainers on.
Getting fit at home became not a burden but a new form of self-care. Behind closed doors, no-one could see us sweating and panting; it was unintimidating, and no-one had to worry that they couldn’t actually work out how to use gym machines.
But have we been doing it right? In a new BBC One documentary called The Truth About… Getting Fit At Home, which airs this week, I explore this question as we face down our third national lockdown. Because the truth is not everyone knows how to exercise effectively at home. There is an abundance of content online, and a quick search on Google or YouTube brings up a near-infinite number of exercise plans. For the average person, knowing where to start, and what’s right for them, is a minefield.
What will help us and what might harm us? How can we extract the maximum gain from the minimum amount of time? And what, if anything, is actually worth buying when it comes to equipment, technology and clothing?
Before the pandemic, I was a committed gym-goer, if not a fitness expert. Yet I was surprised by what we found out.
If you buy one product, make it resistance bands
The most common misconception is that if we want to be fitter, healthier and slimmer, we should focus on cardio workouts. We underestimate the value of strength training. But research suggests lifting weights, or even just using our body to provide resistance – by doing press-ups, for instance – is equally, if not more, important. It has been shown not only to improve heart health but also to reduce blood sugar levels, lowering the risk of diabetes.
That doesn’t mean you need to buy a set of dumbbells. One study we did for the programme revealed that resistance bands are just as effective, working your muscles in a similar way and producing a comparable benefit. They also have the added bonus of being lightweight and portable, and take up little space in your house. Failing that, you can even use equipment and objects you already own: doing press-ups against your kitchen counter or lifting four-pint milk bottles full of water all count.
But the biggest strength training revelation for me was how little time it requires to see some positive effect. Just one minute for each of the six muscle groups per week is enough, the experts told me.
The high intensity training (HIIT) practised by the likes of Wicks can also be performed in a shorter space of time than going out for a run. A good 15 minutes of HIIT can do the trick, but for those unable to fling themselves around the room, even for 15 minutes, yoga will also bring benefits, including reducing blood pressure.
Are you running right?
Perhaps you’re spending quite enough time in the house at the moment, and are wedded to your running regime as a chance for fresh air and scenery? I was among the many people who downloaded the popular NHS Couch to 5K app when the first lockdown began, and made sure I went running early each day following a healthy vegetable shake. At least, I thought it was healthy. Yet I was making a variety of errors.
Running technique matters. When mine was evaluated, it transpired I was moving my shoulders and hips too much and taking excessively big strides. I was shown how to improve my posture, land on the correct part of my foot (not the heel but the mid-to-front part of the sole), and take shorter, swifter strides. I felt the difference straight away. Suddenly my legs seemed lighter; the running felt more effortless. Get your technique right and you can keep going for longer.
But don’t try and do it with nothing but a vegetable shake inside you! My pre-run calorie intake was found to be insufficient, and I was warned to take in more fuel before exercising. Starve your body of the right amount and your energy levels will drop. In the most serious cases, bodily functions such as menstruation can begin to shut down as your body seeks to conserve energy where it can.
Wearable tech works
You may have noticed others wearing compression clothing – garments such as leggings that fit tightly around the skin and are designed to improve recovery.
Millions of pounds are spent on such sportswear each year, but I found when I tried it it didn’t fit tightly enough around my legs to achieve the purported benefit. Be sure what you’re buying is actually going to do what you think it will.
What is always worthwhile for women, however, is buying the right type of sports bra. We don’t talk enough about how crucial this is for enabling women and girls to participate in physical activity. I know too many who have stayed away from any high or even medium impact exercise because of the breast pain it gives them. They are not in a minority: some 70 per cent of women have experienced breast pain as a result of exercise. Being properly supported is therefore essential. This means trying on different types of sports bra and taking the time to find out what works for you. Look at how your breasts move up and down, side to side, and forwards and backwards when you’re working out and make sure what you’re wearing limits this movement sufficiently to prevent pain and strain. A failure to do so can do long-term damage to your body.
In another of our studies for the show, we found that wearable tech can make an astonishing difference. By giving two groups of people the same exercise programme to follow, only one of which could measure their progress on a smartwatch, we found that being able to see how you’re doing psychologically spurs you on to go further. The group who could monitor the intensity of their workouts were motivated to carry on and do more than those who couldn’t. It was like having a personal trainer standing there egging them on; someone who could see if they were doing their burpees or not.
What’s in your sports drink?
A bewildering array of supplements, protein shakes and energy drinks is on offer in shops and online, sold as a means of enhancing exercise performance. But do you need any of it? That is debatable. Yes, studies show that caffeine can improve our performance, enabling us to feel as if we’re expending less energy and making our workout feel easier, which in turn helps us push ourselves harder and for longer. But it’s important to look at the sugar content of caffeinated energy drinks. I was horrified to find that some contained as much as 15 teaspoons. Consuming anything containing this quantity of sugar would clearly be counterproductive for anyone trying to get healthy.
Protein shakes and powders can be useful, meanwhile, if you don’t have the time to prepare home-made protein-filled meals several times a day. But incorporating the protein you need as part of your diet is arguably the best way to go.
As told to Rosa Silverman
The Truth About… Getting Fit At Home airs on Wednesday January 13 at 9pm on BBC One