I’ll say it once and then I’ll move on: 2020 was a mind-numbing energy suck. When a state of emergency was declared throughout the United States in March 2020 and lockdown ensued, the structure and meaning of our lives was turned upside down almost overnight and we were left to flail in a cloud of fear, grief and misinformation. All routines and good habits went down the drain for many if not most people, which is what happens during a crisis. It was enough every day to just still be alive.

There is positivity to be found throughout the pandemic. In recreating our own structure and meaning, we have had to focus on the core of what is most important to each of us, and learn to let a lot of small stresses and unimportant details go. We’ve learned to appreciate our families and friends more than ever. We’ve used ingenuity and creativity to restructure our lives and routines to fill the gaping hole left behind by lockdown. The value of health and the importance of taking good care of ourselves also has become apparent as the demographics of the populations hit hard by the COVID pandemic emerged.

The importance of COVID-proofing ourselves as much as possible by protecting our health through good preventive self-care cannot be overstated. Yet there is a specific COVID demographic that frequently is ignored or dismissed. Perhaps it feels awkward or uncomfortable for many health care professionals and public health personnel to discuss.  We know that people age 60 and over are at risk for COVID complications, and that the risk increases for the 75 and over population. Those with compromised immune systems also are at risk. What isn’t publicized nearly as much as it should be is that cardiovascular health is a huge predictor of how well our bodies would handle an active COVID infection. I’m not going to tiptoe around this: Obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, and general deconditioning and poor fitness are factors that lower your immunity and render you more susceptible to complications from a respiratory infection.

This concept is nothing new. It’s the same demographic profile for influenza, pneumonia, and all respiratory illnesses. If you are even moderately overweight and out of shape, and drink more on average than a modest glass of wine or beer per day and/or smoke on top of it all, you have a much higher risk for COVID complications as well as for complications of any respiratory illness. 

It isn’t a surprise that COVID is a national crisis in our country. The United States does not rank highly in terms of worldwide fitness. The fitness levels of our nation’s children ranked 47th out of 50 countries studied in a 2016 report published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The U.S. also routinely scores horribly in world body-mass index (BMI) studies and other obesity initiatives conducted by the WHO and OECD (click here for an easy reading summary of 2019 data published by Money Inc.). You need venture no further than the nearest Friendly’s to see that things likely haven’t changed much in a couple of years. I can tell you that our highly ranked health care system is completely overloaded due to our nation’s poor self-care. And this slightly dry 2016 NIH study concurs that overweight/obesity status positively correlates with increased “all-cause” mortality.

Of course there are always outliers in the statistics. We cannot predict the occurrence of unknown latent medical conditions such as a genetic cardiovascular defect in an otherwise healthy person that might only make itself known under the stress of a significant illness. Therefore it is important to follow all public health guidelines and not take chances. As far as the idiots in our nation who refuse to wear masks—all I can say is that I’m a big fan of natural selection, but I am heartbroken for the victims of the idiots. It is inexcusable that there are elderly people, children, family members and co-workers who have been exposed to COVID by someone in their life who cared only about their own comfort and convenience in their own crazy universe, and not at all about the health and safety of loved ones.

I live and work in Stowe, Vermont, a very healthy area of the country where most people are physically very active and live healthy lifestyles. But I am finding that since I was permitted by the state to reopen my clinic for in-person visits on May 15th, I am seeing far fewer sports-related injuries and much more stress- and deconditioning-related pain than ever. Many clients come in saying, ”I used to be so fit, and I’ve let it all go in the past year,” “I just don’t feel like myself and I’m having trouble getting back into an exercise routine,” or “I think I’ve gained the COVID 19 and I need help getting back on track.” I give people credit for seeking help. And I wonder how many people who are in the same situation are not reaching out for help right now.

I understand how it happens. This is the first blog I’ve written since the second half of 2019. I let blogging, an activity that feeds my brain and soul, completely go in 2020. I could blame it on the craziness of running a physical therapy clinic with my entire family upstairs most of the time since March 2020. Any spare time I might have had felt like it was consumed by the task of obliterating anything that lives in my clinic with disinfectants every hour and after hours. In addition, my new job as the resident barista, serving up lattes to the husband on the family room trading floor and to the teenagers doing remote school, took up a lot of time. Truth: I got out of the routine. I think I felt too brain dead and overwhelmed most of the time to write. I didn’t even read much, other than what needed to be read for my job and to keep up with wildly oscillating pandemic-driven health insurance and practice guidelines. I let it all go, and I have been feeling the effects of my brain craving that input. I’ve made it a goal for 2021 to read a minimum of one book per month, and to write one blog per month.

Getting this blog going again was torture and I’ve been agonizing over it for days, particularly with my end of the month deadline on the horizon. I am just out of the habit. I finally decided that given the current state of affairs in my home, there might never again be a perfect time to blog and the only thing to do is just sit down and begin, just write whatever comes out for 15 minutes at a time. So I hunkered down with my computer yesterday, planning on 15 minutes of stream of consciousness style writing, looked at the clock 1 ½ hours later and the first draft was done.

I believe that all those clients, and those who are not clients, whose fitness has declined in the past 10 months, are in a similar situation. Their gym shut down or the exercise class they relied upon was cancelled during lockdown, their routines blew up, life got crazy trying to manage work or unemployment, either out of the home in the midst of a pandemic or at home, possibly with kids also at home doing remote school. Those fortunate enough to be able to keep their jobs and work from home now are frequently in a situation where their supervisor thinks that employees working at home are now free to work all the time. Stress is exhausting, and it is easy to choose relaxing or sleep instead of exercising in this situation, especially when your pandemic life seems to have excluded any window of time to take care of yourself.

But you can regain your fitness, and build a routine that will make you healthier and stronger than ever before.  This truly may be the easiest time in the world to get fit and strong. Online fitness classes and personal trainers abound. There are some great fitness apps, including but not limited to Nike Training Club and Fitness Blender, and free or reasonably priced workouts are available through organizations such as Spartan and Sheepdog Strong. There also is the timeless and highly effective 7-Minute Workout, developed in 2013 before HIIT workouts were a thing. You can find it online and it even has its own app. And if all else fails, you can find free basic fitness moves and exercise sets posted by personal trainers on Instagram.

You do not need a gym or expensive fitness equipment. Inexpensive weights, bands, and other gear can be found online. You also can go all functional training and use what you have at home to create your own equipment using plastic milk cartons filled with water, sandbags from a hardware store, a backpack containing a few heavy books, a lightweight sledgehammer, and a jump rope. The world outdoors also is always at your disposal for cardiovascular training. A break from the house to spend time outdoors is a huge mental health booster.

Here is how to get started and reclaim your fitness: Forget about trying to find the perfect window of time or the perfect workout and just do it. Do it now. Just decide you’re going to exercise for 15 minutes, stop stressing about how out of the routine you are and how much it’s going to hurt, drop whatever it is you’re doing for just 15 minutes. Drop this blog right now and get started! Tell your kids to sit tight for 15 minutes, pretend your WiFi connection to your job broke for 15 minutes, let the black hole of never-ending household chores and making dinner wait for just 15 minutes. Set a timer if necessary. Pick two or three basic exercises that you know—your set could be push-ups, crunches and squats, or jumping jacks, lunges, and triceps dips on a chair, or whatever you choose. You can perform rotating 30-second sets of each exercise for 8 minutes or, if that’s too intense for you, try 8 to 10 repetitions of each exercise, and just rotate through sets for 8 minutes. Then gently stretch out for 7 minutes. Then you’re done, you’ve exercised and you don’t have to feel badly about yourself today for not exercising. You might even have enjoyed it.

Do it every day, no matter how tired or busy you are. Build a routine to the point where your day is not complete until you have put in your 15 minutes. Put a reminder in your phone and do not blow it off. If you realize at the end of the day that you forgot about your 15 minutes of exercise–well, you still have 15 minutes left. Bang it out, no matter how tired you are. Don’t put it off until tomorrow! Not every 15-minute workout has to be intense. Do whatever exercise will make you feel energized, calm, and happy—it could be 15 minutes of gentle movement, stretching, yoga, gentle core work or stability exercise, or whatever you believe will help you the most. It will help to work in some outdoors time too, and your 15 minutes on some days could be just an out-and-back walk. Or you may choose to add a second round of 15 minutes at the beginning or end of the day for your outdoor activity.

Your 15-minute workout may be a chore at first. You may feel tired and sore in the first few days, and annoyed at yourself for feeling tired and sore from just 15 minutes of exercising. But what this muscle fatigue and soreness will show you is just how effective 15 minutes of exercise can be. You will start to feel better and stronger as you stick with this program, you likely will crave more, and your workouts will naturally start to get a little longer. If not, don’t worry about it and just stick with the plan. Mental strength follows physical strength, and you will start to notice that you are calmer and handle the unexpected thrown at you with less stress and more of a sense of humor. And you will feel more energized and seek out healthy food to supplement your progress, and cravings for energy boosts from sugar and quick packaged snacks will diminish.

You deserve the gifts of health and strength. Don’t be a martyr and tell everyone and yourself that you’re just way too busy, your job needs you too much and your family needs you too much. You can’t possibly take care of those around you unless you take good care of yourself first. Feel selfish if you must, but decide that you own those 15 minutes and no one will take them away from you. Reclaim your fitness, physical health and mental health in 2021. Become a pandemic warrior who protects your own health and the health of those around you, 15 minutes at a time. It is the best gift you can give yourself this year.

Kathleen Doehla, M.S. P.T.