Remote Work Has Helped Us Redefine Exercise

Americans have become far more sedentary over the past two years, and that’s changing how we view what constitutes a workout.

Of all the relationships that have been totally upended since the beginning of the pandemic, the most surprising one might be our relationship with our own physical body. The majority of people who can do their job remotely have done so for the better part of the past two years, and Americans’ average daily steps dropped by 20 percent, according to one observational study from 2020. This was likely owing, in part, to the lack of a commute into work (even for car commuters, a walk from a parking garage is more steps than rolling out of bed to your kitchen table). That plunge in physical activity has now pushed many of us to conceive of exercise not as a dreaded addition to our busy schedule, but as an integral part of our life.

Emily Kuykendall, a Philadelphia-based HR professional, told me she never used to intentionally exercise, because she struggled with the fact that as a larger woman, working out was often framed as a way to change her body. She would take lunchtime walks around her job’s sprawling campus to break up the day, but that was the extent of anything resembling physical exertion. Then she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and when her office life moved to a screen because of social-distancing measures, she became even more sedentary. That confluence of events allowed her an opportunity to think about how and why she wanted to exercise, and what it could do for her health. For the first time in her life, Kuykendall, who’s 27, said she began to think of intentional movement as fundamental to her well-being, and not about weight loss.

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The people I spoke with agreed that the pandemic has helped change their relationship to exercise, which previously felt like a chore that they were always failing to turn into a habit. Kuykendall started to go on walks and take yoga classes on Zoom, and the more she moved, the more she wanted to move. She told me she begins by asking herself: “What do I want to do? Do I want to go for a walk? Dance to some music for five minutes? Stretch? Nap? All of those things are taking care of my body and listening to what it specifically wants right now.” The mental reframing that all kinds of activities (not just intense cardio, for instance) can yield health benefits is one of the positive outcomes of working from home, says Marissa Goldberg, who consults with companies on the best ways to implement remote work for employees. Pre-pandemic, people might have seen the opportunities to fit exercise into the day as limited. But when work moved online for many—at the same time that gyms across the country closed—the options for what we perceived as exercise expanded. For her part, Goldberg sets a 30-minute timer every day to clean, finish a to-do list of errands, take a midday walk to clear her head, or dance to music.