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Fitness 2020: The Year in Exercise Science

Phys Ed

2020: A Year in Fitness Like No Other

The novel coronavirus crept into and transformed every aspect of our lives, including the way we work out.

Credit…Getty Images
Gretchen Reynolds

  • Dec. 16, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

This year, the novel coronavirus crept into and transformed every aspect of our lives, including our fitness. In countless ways — some surprising, and a few beneficial and potentially lasting — it altered how, why and what we need from exercise.

At the start of the year, few of us expected a virus to upend our world and workouts. In January and February, I was writing about topics that seemed pressing at the time, such as whether low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diets endanger athletes’ skeletal health; if fat-soled, maximalist running shoes might alter our strides; and how completing a marathon — remember those? — remodels first-time racers’ arteries.

The answers, by the way, according to the research, are that avoiding carbs for several weeks may produce early signs of declining bone health in endurance athletes; runners donning super-cushioned, marshmallowy shoes often strike the ground with greater force than if they wear skinnier pairs; and a single marathon renders new runners’ arteries more pliable and biologically youthful.

But concerns about shoe cushioning and racing tended to fade in March, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic and we suddenly had new, top-of-the-mind worries, including social distancing, masks, aerosol spread and lockdowns.

The effects on our exercise routines seemed to be both immediate and stuttering. At that time, none of us knew quite how and whether to work out in these new circumstances. Should we still run, ride and stroll outside if our community had instituted stay-at-home restrictions? Did we need to wear a mask during exercise — and could we do so without feeling as if we were suffocating? Were communal drinking fountains safe?

My first column grappling with these and related topics appeared on March 19. The experts I spoke with then were adamant that we should aim to remain physically active during the pandemic — but avoid shared drinking fountains. They also pointed out, though, that many questions about the virus, including how to exercise safely, remained unresolved.

After that, our experience with — and the research about — Covid and exercise snowballed. A much-discussed April study, for instance, showed that brisk walking and running could alter and accelerate the flow of air around us, sending expired respiratory particles farther than if we stayed still. Consequently, the study concluded, runners and walkers should maintain 15 feet or more of social distance between themselves and others, more than double the standard six feet of separation then recommended. (Subsequent research found that outdoor activities were generally safe, though experts still suggest staying as far apart as is practical, and to wear a mask.)

Another cautionary study I wrote about in June tracked 112 Covid infections in South Korea that spring to Zumba classes. A few infected instructors introduced the virus to their students during close-quarter, indoor, exuberant classes. Some students carried it home, infecting dozens of their family members and friends. Most rapidly recovered. But the study’s story was disquieting. “Exercising in a gym will make you vulnerable to infectious disease,” one of its disease-detective authors told me.

Thankfully, other science about exercising in the time of Covid was more encouraging. In two recent experiments involving masked exercisers, researchers found that face coverings barely budged people’s heart rates, respirations or, after some initial getting used to, subjective sense of the workouts’ difficulty. Moving felt the same, whether participants wore masks or not. (I use a cloth mask or neck gaiter on all my hikes and runs now.)

More surprising, the pandemic seems to have nudged some people to start moving more, additional research found. An online survey of runners and other athletes in Junereported that most of these already active people said they were training more frequently now.

A separate British study, however, produced more-nuanced results. Using objective data from an activity-tracking phone app, its authors found that many of the older app users were up and walking more regularly after the pandemic began. But a majority of the younger, working-age adults, even if they had been active in the before times, sat almost all day now.

The long-range impacts of Covid on how often and in what ways we move are unsettled, of course, and I suspect will be the subject of considerable research in the years ahead. But, as someone who writes about, enjoys and procrastinates with exercise, the primary lesson of this year in exercise for me has been that fitness, in all its practical and evocative meanings, has never been so important.

In a useful study I wrote about in August, for instance, young, college athletes — all supremely fit — produced more antibodies to a flu vaccine than other healthy but untrained young people, a result that will keep me working out in anticipation of the Covid vaccine.

More poetically, in a mouse study I covered in September, animals that ran became much better able to cope later with unfamiliar trouble and stress than animals that had sat quietly in their cages.

And in perhaps my favorite study of the year, people who undertook “awe walks,” during which they deliberately sought out and focused on the small beauties and unexpected wonders along their way, felt more rejuvenated and happier afterward than walkers who did not cultivate awe.

In other words, we can dependably find solace and emotional — and physical — strength in moving through a world that remains lovely and beckoning. Happy, healthy holidays, everyone.

Why We Get Running Injuries (and How to Prevent Them)

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Credit Getty Images

Warm weather is on its way across the country — really, it is, I promise— and so are spring marathons, meaning that many people soon will begin a new or augmented running program. Many also will wind up sidelined by injury. But a new study suggests that being light on your feet could keep most runners healthy.

Running injuries are extremely common, with some statistics estimating that as many as 90 percent of runners miss training time every year due to injury.

But the underlying cause of many of these injuries remains in question. Past studies and popular opinion have blamed increased mileage, excess body weight, over-striding, modern running shoes, going barefoot, weak hips, diet, and rough pavement or trails. But most often, studies have found that the best indicator of a future injury is a past one, which, frankly, is not a helpful conclusion for runners hoping not to get hurt.

So for the new study, which was published in December in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers at Harvard Medical School and other universities decided to look at running injuries, one of the more obvious but surprisingly understudied aspects of running, and to focus their attention, in part, on those rare long-time runners who have never been hurt.

Specifically, they set out to look at pounding, or impact loading, which means the amount of force that we create when we strike the ground. Pounding is, of course, inevitable during a run. But runners with similar body types and running styles can experience wildly different amounts of impact loading, and it hasn’t been clear to what extent these differences directly contribute to injuries.

The researchers recruited 249 experienced female recreational runners, who were chosen in part because they all struck the ground with their heels when they ran. Most runners are heel strikers, and heel striking is believed by many running experts to cause higher impacts than landing near the middle or front of the foot, possibly contributing to an increased risk of injuries. (The scientists focused on a single sex so that they would not have to control for gender in the results.)

The volunteers reported to the biomechanics lab at the Spaulding National Running Center, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, where they completed questionnaires about their injury history and then strode along a track equipped with force monitors to determine their impact loads.

Afterward, the scientists asked each volunteer to complete an ongoing, online running diary and injury log.

The researchers tracked the runners for two years.

During that time, more than 100 of the runners reported sustaining an injury that was serious enough to require medical attention. Another 40 or so reported minor injuries, while the rest remained uninjured.

More remarkably, in the minds of the researchers, 21 of the runners not only did not become injured during the two-year study but also had not had a prior injury. They remained long-term running-injury virgins, the athletic equivalent of unicorns.

Intrigued, the scientists decided to compare that small group’s impact loading with the pounding experienced by the seriously injured runners, since, the researchers theorized, the contrast between these groups should provide the most telling data about whether how hard you land affects your risk of being hurt.

The answer was that it does. The never-injured runners, as a group, landed far more lightly than those who had been seriously hurt, the scientists found, even when the researchers controlled for running mileage, body weight and other variables.

That finding refutes the widely held belief that a runner cannot land lightly on her heels.

“One of the runners we studied, a woman who has run multiple marathons and never been hurt, had some of the lowest rates of loading that we’ve ever seen,” said Irene Davis, a Harvard professor and director of the Spaulding center, who led the study. She pounded far less than many runners who land near the front of their feet, Dr. Davis said. “When you watched her run, it was like seeing an insect running across water. It was beautiful.”

The data also, however, contain a more general message for those of us who are not as wispy and whippy in our landings. Consciously think about “a soft landing,” Dr. Davis said. Some runners, especially those with a long history of injuries, might want to experiment with landing closer to the midfoot, she said, since many — but not all — runners naturally land more lightly when they don’t lead with the heel.

Consider, too, slightly increasing your cadence, she said, which is the number of steps you take per minute, a change that also tends to reduce the pounding from each stride. Or you might, as I plan to do, imagine that you are running over eggshells or, even more evocatively, are a water strider, moving gracefully and weightlessly across the pond.

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