Exercise anxiety: How COVID-19 changed the way we recreate
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Residents of Steamboat Springs are not the type to let a global pandemic stop them from enjoying the great outdoors.
For proof, ask Pete Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports and a well-known face around the city, who just got off a river trip through the Desolation and Gray canyons in Utah. He is preparing for another voyage on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.
With business slow and extensive restrictions imposed by COVID-19, Van De Carr has found a silver lining amid the crisis in that he has more time to get on the water. He admits his profits likely will take a hit, and he sympathizes with those who have suffered much worse consequences due to the virus.
He also knows the situation is out of his control, so it is better to ride the rapids with a smile.
“It’s really been a pretty glorious time for me,” Van De Carr said of his free time to spend with family doing what he loves.
Amid the intense limitations Coloradans have been living under since March, recreation has been one of the few activities they can still enjoy and the state encourages. At the start of June, when Gov. Jared Polis announced a new phase of recovery, he called it “Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors,” highlighting the millions of acres of federal land, city and state parks and other open spaces that allow for recommended distancing.
But as Van De Carr acknowledged, recreation is not what it was. The pandemic has wrought new challenges and frothed unprecedented concerns over his well-being that he never gave much thought to before the virus. On river trips, he keeps his distance from other families and wears a mask when necessary, something he has never had to do before.
As he said, “That’s the reality of owning a small business — there are no sick days.”
A double-edged sword
Before COVID-19, exercising was a remedy to life’s struggles, a way to release stress from a long day at work and have fun with friends.
While it continues to serve that purpose for many, it is hard to escape the ever-pervading anxieties of getting sick or getting someone else sick.
Dr. Justin Ross, a psychologist with UCHealth Integrative Medicine Center in Stapleton, has studied anxieties caused by COVID-19. When it comes to exercise, he has heard patients list a variety of reasons for their apprehension, from passing people on trails who are not wearing face masks to exposing themselves to the virus at indoor workout facilities where sweat and spit are the currency of fitness.
As recent research from Belgium showed, the social distancing requirement of 6 feet might be inadequate for preventing disease transmission during higher-intensity activities that can spew saliva as much as 65 feet. That helps to explain why the state was reluctant to allow gyms and fitness centers to reopen until this month, and those that have opened must implement strict mitigation protocols.
To make matters worse, parts of the country have seen a resurgence of the virus. On June 5, Utah reported its largest growth in COVID-19 cases in a single day after 439 people tested positive for the virus. Fortunately for Colorado, new case counts have remained low, as Polis announced Thursday, but he raised concerns about a second wave of infections, particularly with thousands of people gathering in police protests.
With these and other concerns on people’s minds, it is no wonder some residents, particularly those more vulnerable to the virus, are wary of recreating. The consequences have been far-reaching.
Losing a community
Organized team sports effectively ended with the stay-at-home order imposed in March. More than just a way to stay fit, these activities provide a sense of community for participants. They are as much a time to socialize as to exercise.
Sean Pummill works at the Tennis Center of Steamboat Springs, but he is no tennis expert. His game of choice is pickleball, and he has helped to amass a loyal group of players. Last summer, more than 80 people participated in a single day, Pummill said. The players range in skill level and age, from a 12-year-old to those well into their 70s.
The social aspect of the sport is what propelled it into the popular imagination about a decade ago, according to Pummill. Players chat between matches, exchanging gossip as well as beta.
“I have a lot of friends I met solely through pickleball,” Pummill said.
When the Tennis Center closed in March, he found himself yearning not just for the game itself but for the people he saw on almost a daily basis.
“It was very jarring,” Pummill said. “I don’t even know how to describe it.”
He is not alone in feeling that way. A group of pickleballers put a lighthearted spin on their quarantine with a YouTube parody titled “I wanna dink with somebody.” (A dink is pickleball lingo for a type of soft volley.) Set to Whitney Houston’s hit song, it features players reminiscing about days on the court and knocking over lamps trying to host a match in a cramped living room.
Even individual exercise has a communal aspect. When Old Town Hot Springs reopened on June 5 with a strict mitigation protocol in place Marketing Director Vanessa Cory noticed a cultural change within the facility. With more than 8,000 members, the fitness center and pools usually are places where people catch up with other locals alongside their workouts.
“A lot of that connection has been lost with how we have to run the facility right now,” Cory said.
Before the pandemic, chairs surrounded a fireplace in the lobby. It was a space for people to sit around, have a snack and chat with passersby. Due to mitigation protocols, staff had to remove the chairs. Now, members are more deliberate with their visits to the hot springs, the environment more regulated and clinical.
Pharmacies of fitness
As numerous stories from around the world show, exercise is important. It improves not just one’s physical health, honing the lungs and heart and muscles into fine-tuned powerhouses, but also one’s emotional and mental well-being.
Those worried about getting sick might take note that exercise can buttress whatever regimen of expensive supplements and quasi-medicinal elixirs they might have adopted. Regular, moderate exercise has been shown to give the body more robust immune responses to vaccines and reduce one’s risk of illness, according to a report from the American College of Cardiology.
Dr. David Wilkinson, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, said outdoor recreation might provide special defenses against COVID-19. As he explained, the virus itself is unstable outside of the body, and UV light kills it quickly.
“All of those elements are outdoors and serve to protect you to some degree,” Wilkinson said.
People who had or have the virus should listen to their body when it comes to exercising. Those without symptoms who feel up to it should start gradually and build from there.
“What you don’t want to do is exercise when you are still having symptoms,” Wilkinson said, explaining how it hampers the body’s immune response and could get others sick.
For reasons scientists are still studying, even a brief walk through a forest provides health benefits. Such strolls have been a long-held tradition in Japan, called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
Participants of the practice tend to be less anxious, sleep better and sleep longer after spending as few as 20 minutes outside. Sojourns through forests also have been shown to strengthen the immune system, reduce blood pressure, increase energy and boost overall well-being. It has proved so beneficial, Japan launched a national campaign in 1982 to encourage forest bathing.
“Wherever there are trees, we are healthier and happier,” Dr. Qing Li, a Japanese physician who has spent years studying the practice, writes in his aptly named book, “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness.”
- When possible, avoid using grocery stores, gas stations etc. in the communities you visit to prevent the spread of COVID-19 across communities. Secure food, water, gas and any other needed supplies in your home community.
- Maintain physical distance of at least 6 feet from members of other households at all times, except in cases where it is unsafe to maintain that distance.
- Wear face coverings during check-in, staging, transportation to and from activity if in a shared vehicle, as well as during end-of-trip disembarking activities.
- Follow company guidelines on whether/what kind of face cover to safely use during trips. Check local regulations before travel.
- Bring hand sanitizers or soap and water.
- If you or anyone in your party is sick, stay home and rebook. For COVID-19, understand how long you need to quarantine (if exposed) or isolate (if ill) before you rebook.
Source: Colorado Department of Health & Environment
Fortunately for those in Steamboat, forested areas abound, with ample public trails to allow people myriad of options to walk and unwind. Wilkinson hopes people can see theses places as benefactors for their health, not threats.
“I want people to get out there and get exercise — but to remember the virus is still there and take steps to protect themselves,” he said.
Leaders in other realms of exercise are making similar attempts to encourage a return to recreation and assuage people’s fears.
The Tennis Center has guidelines in place to operate at reduced capacity and require people to wear protective equipment in certain areas. Initially, only a trickle of players showed up for pickleball matches, Pummill said, but more return each week.
- Continue to physically distance, staying at least 6 feet from members of other households.
- Stay home other than getting tested if you are sick or have COVID-19 symptoms.
- Avoid recreating in public spaces if anyone in your household is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
- Wear a mask while recreating when needed.
- Bring hand sanitizer to clean hands when soap and water is not available.
Source: Colorado Department of Health & Environment
“It is just great to see them again,” he said.
Old Town Hot Springs went so far as to hire an expert epidemiologist to draft a 50-page reopening plan, which has protocols ranging from frequent disinfecting of rooms and equipment to requiring people to wear masks indoors, even while working out. The hot springs originally had a reservation system to limit the number of people. It since has switched to a first-come, first-served basis with reduced capacity, accepting only people who had memberships before the pandemic.
“Our number one goal is to stay compliant so we can stay open,” said Cory, the marketing director.
She hopes the fitness center can welcome more people and offer classes as the recovery plan progresses. Until then, Cory wants all members to feel safe when they come to work out or soak. It has not been easy to navigate the ever-changing rules and guidelines, but such is the reality of an unprecedented crisis.
As Cory put it, “At the end of the day, we just feel grateful that we can be open.”
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