The Pandemic’s Heart-Breaking Side Effect: Sitting, Sitting, Sitting

Woman stretching next to her desk. She is wearing black exercise clothes and her brown hair is tied in a bun..

Posted February 23, 2021

For many of us, daily exercise has taken a back seat during the pandemic as we spend more time at home. Whether our routines have gotten slower, we’re working remotely, helping our children with their Zoom schooling or spending more time alone, our lifestyles have become more sedentary. We may notice the impact this change has had on our weight and stress levels, but what may be less obvious is the damage we are doing to our hearts. 

“A lot of people don’t realize that lack of exercise is an independent risk factor for development and progression of heart disease,” says Sherrie Khadanga, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and assistant professor at UVM Larner College of Medicine. “As many as 250,000 deaths per year are attributed to a lack of regular physical activity. It’s really important to find ways to get up and move your body every day.”

Exercise confers many benefits, including reduction in body weight and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but the accompanying stress and anxiety reduction, as well as improved immune system function, may be especially important, especially right now.

How Much Exercise Should You Get?

Despite what we all know about the benefits of exercise, only 19 percent of women and 26 percent of men typically meet the recommended guidelines, Dr. Khadanga notes. She and other medical experts worry that these numbers are actually lower during the pandemic. One study at the University of California – San Francisco found that since March 2020, there has been a rapid decrease in activity worldwide, according to a review of more than 19 million daily step count measurements taken by smartphone users. Worldwide, within 10 days of the pandemic declaration, there was a 5.5 percent decrease in average steps, and within 30 days, there was a 27.3 percent decrease in average steps.

You’ve probably heard that 10,000 steps is the magic daily goal. “I think that is a good goal to strive for, but I don’t know that it’s a realistic daily average for everyone,” Dr. Khadanga acknowledges. “If I have a 72-year-old patient who typically takes 3,000 steps per day, I suggest she increase her steps by 10 percent every week so that she can build slowly over time. It’s more motivating to work toward an achievable goal.”

Before the pandemic, we could increase steps by choosing a faraway spot in the parking lot or choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Our routines have changed, but it’s important to keep moving. An effective trick is to take a few laps around the house for the last five to 10 minutes of every hour. Using a simple device like a Fitbit to track steps can be “very motivating,” Dr. Khadanga says. “It’s all about staying active throughout the day.” 

Retirees and remote workers alike, here are tips to get moving around the house:

  • Put on music and walk briskly around your home, up and down stairs, for 10 to 15 minutes a few times daily.
  • Dance (like nobody’s watching) to your favorite music while cooking dinner.
  • Jump rope (if your joints can handle it). This is really excellent for your heart.
  • Use commercial breaks during your favorite show to get up and move around.
  • Do an exercise video. There are many options for all levels available for free on YouTube. 
  • Get fresh air by walking or jogging up and down your driveway or around the block several times each day. Try extending your distance to the neighborhood as you work up stamina. (Keep a face mask with you in case you encounter neighbors and want to chat.)

Intensity Is Also Important

Guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 weekly minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. Examples of moderate-intensity activity include brisk walking, jogging and leisurely swimming. Exercising at moderate intensity means your heart will beat faster and you’ll breathe harder than normal, but you’ll still be able to talk. Think of it as a medium or moderate amount of effort.

Vigorous activities include running, jump-roping, cross country skiing, fast cycling or competitive sports like tennis and basketball. These activities will push your body a little further. You’ll probably get warm and begin to sweat and you won’t be able to talk much without getting out of breath.

“Raising your heart rate is what results in the full cardiovascular benefit of exercise,” Dr. Khadanga explains. 

 A combination of low-intensity activity throughout the day with structured sessions of moderate- or high-intensity exercise is ideal for long-term heart health, says Dr. Khadanga. “The key to successful workouts is finding activities you like,” she says. “I hate running, but I enjoy walking on an incline on the treadmill. That’s aerobic exercise, it helps with endurance and gets me to my targeted heart rate.”

Learn More Ways to Stay Healthy and Cope with COVID-19