IT WAS THE end of the year, December. Karen Milnor had risked a trip to Los Angeles to visit a woman who was like a daughter to her, despite restrictions in both Washington and Southern California with a new wave of COVID-19 infections.
Once there, with most places closed, they had few options for activities. They decided to go for a hike in nearby Temescal Canyon.
They didn’t prepare for the hike, not really. They brought water, no snacks. They took the most difficult route up. They started late, so by the time they huffed their way up to a view, it was getting dark — and they didn’t have a flashlight to get back down.
But the top of the hike, with majestic views framed by the soft light of a sunset, changed something inside 53-year-old Milnor. She was just starting to get her energy back after years of battling an autoimmune disease.
“I was exhilarated,” says Milnor, who lives in Lynnwood. “I felt alive.”
Before the trip, Milnor had been careful during the pandemic, particularly with her autoimmune disease. She didn’t venture out, and kept a tight bubble with just her son and his girlfriend.
Hiking gave her a new outlet. While she had hiked before during a stretch when she lived in Switzerland, the lifelong Seattle-area resident never liked it.
Now, she was motivated.
She got fitted for boots. She bought a hat and layers to stay warm. She learned about the essentials to carry with her. She doesn’t like rain or going outside in the winter, but she was committed.
She has hiked weekly with her son ever since.
Several months later, she feels strong, energetic. Hiking has been the catalyst to do other new things, including learning to play the ukulele and guitar.
“Hiking was just what I needed at the time,” she says. “I had no idea this would turn into something I was so passionate about.”
More than a year into an era that we will remember as the Great Interrupter — of how we worked, played, learned, socialized, ate, moved — things are changing, yet again. With vaccination levels rising and people getting called back inside to offices, restaurants, gyms, we are all feeling the shift. We get to see the faces of previously masked workout buddies. We can revel in the deep quiet of a yoga studio, the energy of a live trainer, and regaining strength on equipment you don’t have at home. We can return to activities and spaces we once took for granted, and now cherish.
And yet, some changes are here to stay. People turned into hikers. People built home gyms and will never again return to a gym outside their houses. People fell in love with online classes; you might be inclined to forever and ever dance or do yoga in the privacy of your own home. People found a spot for the treadmill, Peloton or other equipment taking up a corner of the living room/bedroom/garage.
The choices you made over the past year around how you moved — or didn’t move — might not have made total sense.
Perhaps this past year was the most sedentary of your life as you wrangled home schooling your kids for longer than you ever thought possible. Perhaps you moved less than you ever have before, as the stress of home and work jumbled into a stew of uncertainty that felt insurmountable. Perhaps you were an essential worker, and the stress of working during COVID-19 left you with zero energy to take care of yourself. Perhaps you gave up doing something you loved, like yoga, because you couldn’t handle Zoom for one more minute in your day.
But in a year where we had to face huge shifts in the way we lived, and the way we moved our bodies, we also learned. We learned about what motivates us, and what doesn’t. We learned what makes us feel good and what makes us feel worse. Right now, we are learning what we are ready to do — and likely seeing we might need a triple-shot of motivation — now that we are almost to the other side.
BEFORE COVID-19 SHOWED up, you might have moved more than you realized.
If you are a transit user, you might have walked to the bus or light rail from home, and walked again to the office. There were the walks between meetings, plus the walk to grab coffee. You also might have had a routine of going to the gym or fitness studio after work, or a run or walk at a park.
Don’t forget about the walk back to the bus, and then home. Some of you rode your bike to commute.
People who use transit are physically active 15 minutes more per day than non-transit users, research has found. Small stretches of regular activity have a huge impact on how you feel and your overall health, both physical and mental, says Dr. Brian Saelens, a pediatrician at the University of Washington and principal investigator at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
The pandemic took away built-in, unplanned movement for a huge number of people.
A study of more than 3,000 U.S. adults in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed people who previously were active decreased activity by 32% on average.
This led to an increase in screen time, creating more anxiety and depressive symptoms. A lack of physical activity before the pandemic, coincidentally, also was associated in an increased risk of hospitalization from COVID-19.
“Depression and anxiety can be directly attributed to inactivity,” Saelens says. “Ten minutes here, 10 minutes there, it’s a huge benefit.”
Brenda Gardner had always been active, going to the climbing gym a couple of times a week to train for summers spent climbing outside.
Her activity took a nose-dive before the lockdown started, as she studied for an engineering exam.
When the lockdowns shut down life outside of our homes, the civil engineer rode out what seemed like a temporary situation with Netflix.
“It felt like maybe, ‘I’m going to slack off a couple weeks during lockdown and pick it back up when things get back to normal,’ ” says Gardner, 37.
“And that never happened.”
A couple of weeks in, she saw the Seattle Fire Department trucks driving through her South Park neighborhood, firefighters waving at people to ease the tension. The stress of the unknown was getting to her. Gardner loves routine, and she realized she needed to find one.
Gardner was fortunate to have a home gym. Her wife is a climbing coach, and had built an indoor climbing wall in their garage. They had equipment at a time it was nearly impossible to find any.
She also had a treasured new resource — time. Her in-person engineering test was canceled. She had two more hours back without a commute.
She threw herself into working out.
“Mostly, I was working out as a coping mechanism,” Gardner says. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt lucky and privileged and thankful that we had a home gym.”
She hired a coach to help with her strength workouts. Climbing was tougher, though she generally climbed once a week. Her wife helped her come up with workouts, but she missed the social element, hanging out with friends while trying to complete climbing routes.
She and her wife occasionally met friends at other garage gyms for well-ventilated hangouts, but it wasn’t often. As soon as she could reserve time at her climbing gym, she did. She still does strength training at home, but she is excited to go to the gym again.
On the flip side, climbing again has been a physical shock. Her fingers are weak compared to how they once were, and her skin is getting torn up.
“It can feel really discouraging when you knew where you were, when you have to start all over again,” she says. “Going outside, my skin just gets shredded; I have to build up my calluses all over.”
And let’s not forget another muscle that needs to get built up — chatting with people.
“I forgot how to talk to people,” Gardner says, laughing. “It’s awkward.”
UNTIL THE LOCKDOWN, Sylvester Ogletree had never considered building a home gym. He had no reason for it; his regular gym was walking distance from his place in West Seattle.
When the first lockdown orders came, his gym let members borrow equipment. When the lockdown was extended, he decided to buy his own barbell for the Olympic weightlifting training he had been doing, so he didn’t have to share equipment.
At the time, weights were a precious commodity and sold out everywhere. The only one available was a higher-end barbell, which ultimately became an investment for his home gym.
He and his fiancée also felt like they were going crazy at home.
“We became prisoners in our own apartment,” he says.
Like so many others driving the rising real estate market during the past year, they looked for a house. One of Ogletree’s priorities was space to build a home gym, with a high ceiling so he could lift overhead, and a floor solid enough that he could drop weights.
Eventually, they found a house in Renton that met their requirements.
As soon as they closed on the house, he bought 400 pounds of weights. He watched YouTube videos and built a weightlifting platform. He picked up a squat rack on Amazon, and put his gym together.
“I started to take a little pride in the space,” he says. “I enjoy it.”
After he moved, he dropped his gym membership. While he misses the camaraderie of working out with other people, he hasn’t found a gym nearby he wants to join. He’s not planning to join a gym even when he goes back to work at his office.
“I built this gym for a year’s worth of CrossFit membership,” he says. “It’s mine. The barbell lasts a long time, the platform lasts a long time.
“It’s more convenient.”
WHEN THE LOCKDOWNS first happened, there was a lot of discussion around how kids relied on school for food. Schools also are an important source of movement.
Kids with parents who were essential workers didn’t always have a way to move through long days at home, says Dr. Monique Burton, the medical director of the sports medicine program at Seattle Children’s hospital. They might not live in safe neighborhoods, have a yard, or have caregivers, like grandparents, who could move with them. Add in closed parks and playgrounds, and cancellation of school-based sports, and she saw a big jump in screen time, a lot less activity in her young patients, and sadness, anxiety and depression.
“Being active helps your mental health, it helps your functioning, it helps your mental clarity,” she says. “Taking away movement has negative effects.”
Schools have an opportunity to recognize active time is critical for kids, to stop eliminating P.E. classes and instead add more, she says, especially because it’s clear they are keys to kids getting physical activity.
“It’s going to help their health,” Burton says. “Not everyone has to be an athlete.”
The challenge now for many, kids and adults alike, is rebuilding routines and getting moving again.
In early 2020, my movement life centered on Olympic weightlifting. Once my gym shut down, I didn’t have a barbell or home gym, so I turned to walking and yoga to sustain me, with a few online classes with my gym to mix it up.
My goal throughout the pandemic was to keep moving, no matter what. In certain ways, it was easy. My yoga studios all moved classes online. My tap studio eventually went online. After a couple months, it was clear I could hike. I could always walk.
As the year progressed, I felt strong overall, though my legs sometimes felt like jelly on intense hikes. I had my walking routes down pat. I created a work schedule built around a midday walk that I adhere to every day.
The real uphill challenge has been returning to the gym for Olympic weightlifting. When my gym reopened, I put on a mask and tentatively went back. I was sporadic through the fall, unsure if being in the gym really was safe. It took a chat with a friend, committing to being accountability buddies for our training, to get back into lifting once or twice a week.
Like so many, I don’t always want to go to the gym now. It can feel like a lot of effort to leave my house. I got comfortable with a home-based routine, doing yoga online, eating dinner earlier, sleeping more.
But the other day, I worked out at the gym for the first time without a mask. I loved seeing the faces of other unmasked people who are vaccinated. We chatted about how weird, and normal, it was to see each other. I realized I am stronger than I was a couple months ago.
This past year also showed us how rich our movement life can be. We can have our quick Peloton ride, and also go on a hike. We can still go to the gym to sweat, and do online yoga on our lunch break at home. We can take walks outside with friends, or go have a barre date.
I know for myself sticking with a movement routine that is still evolving will require some key elements. Commit to move every day, no matter what. Accountability with friends or workout buddies. Building routines that work for me, which includes online classes.
Really, what’s happened over this past, wildly experimental year, as we shifted, adjusted and changed, is we created a world where more movement than ever is available. The challenge for all of us will be to step up, take it on and move more.