Newly released data from the Wits Sport and Health (WiSH) Research Group, University of the Witwatersrand and Discovery Vitality shows that when we couldn’t exercise at gyms and in groups, fitness devices and online workouts helped keep us active. And, if people are going to stay fit and active in the future, a device could be the “digital coach” that nudges us to keep going.

Research released this week by Discovery Vitality in collaboration with WiSH, highlights fitness patterns during South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdowns – and reveals what got people moving more. With Wits’ Prof Jon Patricios, Vitality wellness clinicians Drs Mosima Mabunda and Deepak Patel analysed physical activity data linked to Vitality, a South African behavioural change programme.

Vitality members’ workout data shows trends in exercise patterns during the various stages of lockdown during the pandemic. “Lockdowns had a big impact on physical activity levels. There was a 49% decrease in physical activity points logged during the ‘hard’ lockdown. The forced closure of gyms significantly affected exercise,” says Prof Patricios.

Dr Mabunda adds: “It was pleasing to note that Vitality members with a longer history of regular exercise, as well as those who used smart heart-rate measuring devices, were more likely to continue exercising during these restricted circumstances.”

Device workouts seemed to be the most effective way to encourage exercise during lockdown. Most people who exercised in gyms and tracked other workouts on devices before COVID-19, continued logging their workouts on devices when gyms were closed. Interestingly, a small proportion of those who preferred workouts in a gym only, before COVID-19, also recorded workouts on their devices when gyms were closed.

How fitness devices flipped the script

“Vitality data shows us that in April 2019, 44% of physical activity points were earned by heart-rate workouts and 28% by attending gym. A year later, the opposite is true. Over 60% of members are now earning points from workouts tracked on their devices,” says Dr Mabunda.

The number of members using online and device-tracked workouts together also increased during lockdowns. “This tells us that there may have been synergy between these workout options. That is, people were using their heart-rate device to measure their online workouts,” Dr Mabunda explains. “In this way, our engaged Vitality members continued to make their weekly fitness goals – and earn rewards for them, too.”

She adds that the data suggests creating more access to fitness devices could encourage more physical activity.

Working out: the future

The COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken to contain it have had a great impact on people’s lives. “To keep people active, we need new interventions, including the use of wearable devices and online workouts,” says Prof Patricios. He says the study results are important in light of research that shows physical activity creates immunity against COVID-19 and other viruses and reduces hospital admissions as well as deaths from the disease.

“This has been highlighted by morbidity and mortality data emerging from the pandemic. Future lockdown measures should aim to encourage physical activity alongside other measures,” he suggests. “The results could also guide how we consider new ways of work and travel for the future – for example, by encouraging people to exercise during pandemics or at times when they can’t exercise the way they usually do. The increased accessibility of online exercise classes complements existing exercise routines.”

He adds that one of the outcomes of the pandemic is an ongoing awareness of hygiene practices in gyms, and that many of these practices may be permanent in future.

Continued, regular physical activity and the use of a heart-rate device appear to be good indicators of people’s ability to continue exercising in new or changing circumstances.

“As the pandemic evolves, it has become increasingly clear that maintaining our fitness is important for not only our overall physical and mental health, but also for improving outcomes from COVID-19 infection,” Prof Patricios concludes.