Outdoor exercise in the time of COVID-19


By Lillian Young
Capital News Service

From local restrictions on gathering sizes to gym closures, staying fit during the COVID-19 pandemic might seem  a near-impossible task.

Despite that, many communities in Michigan and elsewhere in the Great Lakes region have adapted existing physical fitness programs and implemented new ones.

For example, given the limitations of indoor options, the San Francisco-based National Fitness Campaign has partnered with cities across the region to implement outdoor “fitness courts,” free outdoor gyms open all day every day. These gyms are on a cement area about the size of a basketball court, and offer the equipment and space needed for a full body workout.

Fitness courts can be digitally activated with a free app to teach safe workout techniques and training tools via a smartphone. That eliminates the difficulty of getting to a gym or athletic trainer due to the pandemic.

“What’s built in a community has a huge impact on the choices people make, which has an impact on their health,” says Trent Matthais, the executive director of the National Fitness Campaign.

According to a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, a positive relationship exists between physical exercise outdoors and psychological health, which is as important as ever in the midst of a pandemic.

“Higher anxiety levels were evident generally for indoor physical activity, whereas lower anxiety scores were evident for outdoors,” the study by British researchers said.

The FitLot outdoor fitness park, located on the Lansing River Trail near downtown Lansing, opened in 2020. Urban outdoor exercise opportunities are growing in number.

The FitLot outdoor fitness park, located on the Lansing River Trail near downtown Lansing, opened in 2020. Urban outdoor exercise opportunities are growing in number. Image: City of Lansing

“Many [fitness courts] have been able to stay open by following physical distancing guidelines,” Matthais said. The fitness courts also offer contact free workouts, and seven separated fitness zones that each target a different part of the body.

According to Matthais, there are “many options depending on what your safety or comfort level is as an individual.”

Even with colder temperatures, Matthias has seen Midwesterners “get out there in the winter and still work out.”

According to Matthais, the National Fitness Campaign has seen “the Midwest take the lead” in the number of fitness courts established. Michigan is in the top five states nationwide, with Illinois, Indiana and Ohio trailing close behind.

Already-established outdoor activity centers, like Boyne Mountain Ski Resort, have implemented new protocols to allow guests to ski and snowboard as usual.

The resort in Boyne Falls hosts thousands of guests every winter who are eager to hit the slopes for outdoor exercise. As a result of the pandemic, director of marketing Kari Roder said it “anticipates outdoor activity demand to surge as it did this summer.”

Boyne Mountain has “had to change or alter every way that we do business,” Roder said.

“We plan to limit capacity on the slopes via lift ticket sales for winter skiing and snowboarding,” she said. “We are limiting ski lesson group sizes and eliminating larger group programs for the winter.”

Ski racing, another popular sport at Boyne Mountain, is operating under new protocols for running safe, socially distanced races.

The resort’s buildings have mask, social distancing and sanitization requirements

And outdoors? “We can’t emphasize the importance of masking enough, but luckily, face masks and goggles are something skiers and riders are accustomed to and comfortable wearing already,” Roder said.

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