Walking study analyzes how people's fitness habits have changed throughout pandemic

From simply going out for more walks to using sand-filled bleach bottles as dumbbells, a study facilitated by a University of Windsor researcher shows people are finding more ways to stay active during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some participants simply walked more, while others used household items to stay fit

Associate kinesiology professor Sarah Woodruff, whose been leading a research study which analyzes how the fitness behaviours of 135 adults have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, says people initially reduced their step count by about 1,000 during the first month of the lockdown. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

From simply going out for more walks to using sand-filled bleach bottles as dumbbells, a study facilitated by a University of Windsor researcher shows people are finding more ways to stay active during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"During the pandemic, stress is at an all-time high for all of us," said Sarah Woodruff, associate professor in the university's kinesiology department. "So what we wanted to know is what people were doing for physical activity and or how their physical activity behaviours were changing."

Since March, Woodruff has been tracking the physical activity habits of 135 adults who use fitness tracking devices such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch on a monthly basis. Through the study, she's been able to see how many steps those people have taken and how the pandemic has affected that.

Most of the participants are from Canada, particularly Windsor. But of the 135 adults, some are from other provinces and others are international. 

"We're looking at not only the physical activity levels, but also things like sedentary behaviours and other lifestyle-type behaviours," said Woodruff, pointing to changing sleep patterns and the adoption of new hobbies as examples.

Initial decline led to spark in creativity

On average, within the first month of the lockdown, Woodruff's study participants walked about 1,000 less steps in a given day. Woodruff believes the shift to working from home played a big factor in that decline.

"[For] some of us, our hours changed because we were looking after children. Some of us aren't used to working from home," she said. "So we've got a whole bunch of different things being thrown at us.

Though most study participants were able to get back to their original level of physical activity after the first month of the lockdown, Woodruff says that wasn't necessarily because people started walking more again. She adds, in some instances, people would use household items to stay fit — like filling bleach bottles with sand and using them as dumbbells. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

But things changed in the months that followed. Many people's physical activity levels have since risen back up to pre-pandemic levels, though not everyone is choosing to lace up their shoes and go out for more walks.

"If you've got a chair, you can do tricep dips," said Woodruff. "One of the funny ones that we heard was people were taking bleach bottles and filling them with either sand or water and using them as dumbbells."

According to Woodruff, the trend is due in part to exercise equipment being hard to find online during the pandemic. The same can be said for bicycles, she added. In fact, the pandemic has pushed cities across Canada to build new cycling routes as people re-discover the value of cycling.

Physical education teacher Heather Kirincic is one of those people. As one of the 135 adults participating in Woodruff's study, she said the pandemic prompted her to discover "all these cool trails" that she never had the chance to "get out and explore."

Study participant Heather Kirincic says the pandemic influenced her to rediscover her love of cycling. She adds it's been nice discovering new trails around the city and bringing her friends along. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

"It's been amazing — and I've noticed so many people have been out there too," Kirincic said.

Kirincic admits that at the start of the pandemic, she was one of the participants whose step count reduced by almost 1,000 per day. Much of her time was spent grading her students' work, and in-person classes being cancelled meant Kirincic wouldn't be able to get her steps in by walking through school hallways.

"So there wasn't as much walking happening," she said.

But recently, she's been turning to online workout classes to stay fit and also bringing friends along on her bike rides.

"I think finding neighbours or friends that are willing to get out there with you — that definitely helps because then you're not letting yourself down if you don't go. You also let somebody else down," Kirincic said.

In March, the people involved in Woodruff's study spent an average of five hours being sedentary, But by June, that number decreased to three and a half hours. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

The latest findings of the study show that the first month in lockdown boosted daily average sedentary time — watching television, playing video games, scrolling through social media — to five hours. But by June, that number subsided to about three and a half hours.

Currently, there's no scheduled end date for the study.

It could be the end of August, but Woodruff said she might pull the plug on the study earlier if gyms throughout the city are given the green light to reopen and people's physical activity reverts back to pre-pandemic levels altogether.

"If, after a while, nothing much is changing, then there really is no point in continuing," said Woodruff. "Maybe in a year from now, we try to follow up with that cohort again and see how they're doing."


Sanjay Maru is a reporter at CBC Windsor. Email him at


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?