Sport scientists on how we'll exercise post lockdown

As gyms reopened their doors this week, two of LJMU’s sport and exercise scientists shared their views with LJMU Corporate Comms and with The Times newspaper.


DURING lockdown LJMU’s world-renowned Sport and Exercise Science team bigged up home gym, proving conclusively that home-based HIIT training can increase fitness just as much as gym-based programme. Dr Katie Hesketh and Dr Matt Cocks even reported it on the TV, in BBC’s The Truth About Getting Fit at Home.

“We asked participants to complete 12-weeks of high intensity interval training at home, using body-weight exercises and compared it to a group who carried out exercise in a gym environment. We measured a range of health markers in these participants, including body composition, cardiovascular disease risk, and the ability to regulate glucose,” explains Katie Hesketh, a post-doctoral researcher.

The team also backed home-based exercise because it can remove a lot of common barriers to exercise such as cost and access, and is inclusive for everyone no matter their starting fitness level.

But, they are welcoming the return of gyms, and that of studio-classes and swimming later in May; not least because home-exercise has its’ flaws and weaknesses.

Motivation waning?

People tend to get stuck in the same limited weekly online class, or their equipment is not adequate, or their motivation waning, or they’re just not getting the same level of exercise.

“Our movement patterns have changed dramatically over the past 12 months,” says Greg Whyte, professor in applied sport and exercise science. “There’s been a lot more sitting, a lot less incidental moving and almost certainly a big downturn in strength and conditioning, so getting back into exercise won’t necessarily be a case of turning up and doing what you did before.

 “Depending on how inactive you have been, you will likely have gained body fat due to fewer calories burnt daily and a loss of muscle,” Whyte says.

Prof Whyte believes with gyms reopening and swimming pools on May 17 that we will return to a ‘blended model’ of physical activity, with on-line/at home exercise remaining a part of the populations activity program, combined with a return to gyms, particularly for women who are high users of group exercise.

Weights areas at gyms are now open, as even those who were lucky enough to get their hands on dumbbells and kettlebells during the fitness equipment desert that was lockdown are unlikely to have the gym-standard weights that bring serious muscle gains. And strength gains are hard with just your own body weight to lift, says Katie: “You would have to put an awful lot more time into maintaining strength if you are just able to do push-ups and lunges. Even then, 100 extra squats is not going to have the same effect as adding 20kg to a leg press machine.”

'Incredibly inventive'

Greg adds: “The fitness industry has been incredibly inventive in coming up with workouts that can be performed within Covid-19 guidelines. You might not be able to do your circuit class inside, but there are many outdoor options and you can use the weights rooms and most other facilities.”

“If you have been plodding along at a steady pace it is also time to add an element of interval training or to switch some of your sessions to gym-based equipment like the rower or cross trainer for variety and to reduce loading on your joints.”

Now that things open back up again, Dr Hesketh thinks we will start to see a return to the way we used to exercise, not least to recover the social element of exercise which we have been missing out on.

But she hopes newfound the activities individuals have been doing in their local area or at home will become another tool for them to use.

“If you’ve got 3 kids to look after it’s hard to leave the house to go to a gym, but now home-based exercise has been popularised and resources have been made available for everyone to access any time, anywhere!”

Missed social side

The Zoom workout has been a revelation during lockdown, but how we have missed our group gym classes. Big gym chains report that about 33 per cent of their members participate in group classes, with 75 per cent of class regulars being women. A downside during lockdown is that many have tended to find a groove and stick with it online. In becoming converts to online barre or yoga we have been blinkered about trying anything else.

“Yes, our studies have shown that a home-based HIIT programme can be as effective as a lab-based plan if followed correctly,” Greg Whyte says. “Problems may have arisen in terms of all-round fitness if people have done the same barre or dance class week in, week out.”

He says that many people have stopped short of pushing themselves “because they lack confidence about trying a new exercise or technique on their own or just miss the social side of exercise at the gym”.

The good news for the nation’s fitness is that exercise has received unprecedented attention during the pandemic, and both academics agree that messages about the importance of physical activity and health has been elevated across people’s awareness. 


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