Content Warning: This article includes discussion of eating disorders which some readers may find distressing.
As it comes up for almost a year since we entered our first national lockdown, we find ourselves in the middle of our third, except this time, its in the dead of winter. Unlike the past summer, we did not have the refuge of good weather and outdoor space, making daily exercise increasingly more difficult to achieve.
It would be fair to say that during the course of this pandemic many sectors in the fitness industry have been able to thrive, more specifically the home workout market. Big names such as Grace Beverly with her revolutionary ‘Shreddy’ online workout app, Joe Wicks with his online PE classes, and even smaller names such as Youtuber Chloe Ting with her iconic “Two-Week small waist” series, have all jumped on the bandwagon. Domestic gym gear has been almost constantly sold out due to the development of home workout training apps you can use from your phone. These adaptations made by the market have surely caused a great reap of reward.
Whilst encouraging the general public to remain active and healthy is always beneficial, not only for physical but also mental health, it is crucial that the way that this is communicated is sensitive to all individual circumstances.
Like many others, with the introduction of lockdowns and the closure of public facilities, I found myself at a loss as to what I was going to do to maintain my fitness. Having competed for nine years in swimming, I was very used to training up to six times a week, sometimes twice a day. Going from a life of almost daily training to nothing at all was a shock to the system, not only physically but mentally.
Although I wasn’t nearly as committed to swimming at university as I was in school, I was still on my university team and enjoyed the training as a physical and mental outlet, as well as a place to socialise with friends. Having this taken away admittedly was difficult. Initially, I missed training with other people and having a routine to follow, but as the year progressed, I found myself spiralling into a detrimental relationship with body image, calorie counting and obsessive exercise.
The fear of gaining weight and losing muscle mass I had built over years of training was severe. I was not prepared to see the shape of my body change, and went to lengths to prevent it. I would weigh myself everyday, and feel an almost manic sense of achievement if I had managed to lose any sort of weight – it felt like progress.
This is where social media played a key part. With nothing much else to occupy myself with during the summer, I spent the majority of my time online. The constant bombardment of unrealistic body images was nothing new, but the introduction of home workouts being the new normal made me feel under pressure. This allowed myself to justify exercising often twice a day, and reduce my calorie intake in order to have some form of lockdown ‘glow-up’. I felt as if this was something I had to achieve, and if I hadn’t then I had wasted the months of free time lockdown gave me, and that I was a failure.
I watched my weight fluctuate, and with it my mental health and motivation. The desperation I felt to look like something that was fundamentally unachievable and to be constantly productive was overwhelming. On reflection, the online environment I found myself in preyed on my personal insecurities, and magnified them.
Speaking to friends of mine, I soon realised I was not alone in my feelings. A close friend of mine, Katrina, aged 19, who studies at the University of Edinburgh describes the growing anxiety around having a lockdown ‘glow-up’, combined with the new year resolution culture which has provided a never-ending online stream of fresh dieting and exercise fads. She commented on certain elements of the growing at-home workout culture, such as the “endless workout guides that target specific fitness goals, such as “waist-slimming” and “calorie deficit” pages, which act as a constant reminder that “we should all be striving to obtain the same slim, lean and toned figure”.
Another friend of mine, Zoe, 20, who, like me, studies at Stirling University and was a keen swimmer before the outbreak of the pandemic, articulated the obstacles she’s faced both physically and mentally. “As a swimmer, I felt I needed to maintain how I looked so that when we got back to the pool, I would looked the same (if not smaller and more toned) and was still at the same physical fitness level”. Being in an unprecedented national lockdown however, maintaining this was difficult. “Some days, I had the overwhelming urge to work out, eat healthy and stay on top of my body. Whereas other days it was the exact opposite, I couldn’t control how I felt each day”.
The lack of control and uncertainty throughout this pandemic has been a challenge for many. Logan, aged 20 also studying at the University of Stirling, said that he was left feeling “unhappy and anxious of how to gain back my normal health and fitness level” after having to stop his usual twenty-hour training weeks due to COVID-19. Despite this, he pushed himself to exercise in new ways, which “was a reminder that the current situation doesn’t have to be all negative, and you should take the time to benefit your health”.
When my autumn semester of university started, I realised that I needed to change my outlook. I was sick of being my own worst enemy. I still worked out, and went to the gym when I could, but switched my focus to exercising to make myself feel better, and to bring back some much needed routine. I wouldn’t pressure myself to workout every day, I started allowing myself to eat three meals a day, and stopped counting my calories. My goals in the gym weren’t strictly defined; I generally aimed to just rebuild some strength and use it to switch off from my focus from university.
Despite the third lockdown, the online pressures and the unavoidable winter dreariness, it is now more important for us to take care of ourselves. Regardless of whether lockdown motivates you or overwhelms you, finding what works best for ourselves and keeping in mind that living through an international crisis is no easy job, however we come out of the other end of this, it will be a collective achievement.
If you are struggling with any of the topics mentioned above, feel free to use the helplines stated below:
Help for adults
The Beat Adult Helpline is open to anyone over 18. Parents, teachers or any concerned adults should call the adult helpline.
Helpline: 0808 801 0677
To talk about anything that is upsetting you, you can contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), email email@example.com or visit some branches in person. You can also call the Samaritans Welsh Language Line on 0808 164 0123 (7pm–11pm every day).
Featured image credit: Istock