Confessions of a Group Fitness Instructor During a Pandemic

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Five Stages of Grief

When the pandemic officially arrived in British Columbia — March 17, 2020 — I was teaching four fitness classes a week at a local community centre. I had been doing it for 14 years — after a 32-year career as a public school teacher.

Let me be clear: I have not suffered much at all. I have not been sick. My loved ones have not been sick. I know of no one who has been seriously ill with the disease. I have not had to don PPE every day just to do my job. This is not, I hope, a whining session about "poor me." It is, I hope, a fairly honest discussion of the emotional rollercoaster that everyone has been on during these ten months of pandemic living.

Like everyone else, I did not know what to expect. My husband and son, both more involved in science and medicine than I am, knew more than I did. It took a while for my mind to get around the idea that this was going to take a LONG time. I went through a rather typical and somewhat predictable list of emotions, as I am sure everyone did, as I coped with the loss of my regular routines and attempted to figure out how long this would last, how I could keep myself and my husband safe, and wondering if there could ever be a return to fitness classes.

The five stages of grief actually fit quite well 2:

  1. Denial: This lasted a very short time, but I was more in denial about how long it would last than about its very existence. I did understand the nature of viruses, disease, transmission and contagion. I was familiar with the Flu Epidemic of 1918. I have long understood the difference between bacteria and viruses. But I truly did not understand at first how long this would last or how difficult it would be. Like I suppose many others, I wasn't totally familiar with pandemic science, though I certainly learned quickly.

  2. Anger: I was very frustrated by the lack of communication with anyone at the community centre: The Parks Board (who runs the community centre), the British Columbia Parks and Recreation Association (the fitness instructor's certification board), the community centre association (who runs the programmes) or the programmer for the fitness classes. It would be months before any communication occurred. They were in the dark just as much as I was, but I didn't know that for quite a long time.

  3. Bargaining: I went through a stage where I told myself that I would simply need to accept the fact that this was a game-changer. I began to tell myself that I would not likely be able to teach fitness again and it was time to accept that. But I also hoped that I might be able to teach a little longer — hence, the agreement to teach under very different and somewhat difficult circumstances, even for a little while. In addition, there was constant concern about my own safety as well as my husband's. We are both in our 70's and both with several pre-conditions; we know that we are in a higher risk category than many others. I was forever conflicted about wanting to teach fitness classes but not wanting to risk my own health or my husband's.

  4. Depression: This came in spurts and dark moments, but never lasted for long. Keeping busy and doing things I enjoy always keeps the dark feelings at bay. I am much more susceptible to anxiety than to depression, so perhaps this is one time when it was actually a benefit!

  5. Acceptance: There is nothing else one can do when one is facing the obvious and the inevitable. Que Sera, Sera. Whatever will be, will be. I did eventually reach that stage.

The reality is that one does not go through these stages precisely in order with predictable outcomes. Instead, we move back and forth through the emotions, so that "acceptance" might be there one day and not there the next. Ultimately, however, a healthy adjustment requires patience, levity, wisdom, and calm.

Acceptance Meant Finding New goals, New Routines

Like most people, I exercise to stay healthy — as much as I possibly can. It not only helps to keep me alive, but it helps to keep the quality of my life at a level I can tolerate. This is because, like everyone else, I cope with several health conditions:

Exercise is crucial for me to maintain good health.

As time went along, I observed physical changes, especially as I struggled to create a schedule for myself and to plan regular exercise sessions. In addition, I remained in touch with many of my participants through emails. They, too, were frustrated by not having a class. I concentrated at first on giving them ideas and suggestions for what exercises they could do at home. While helping them I was also helping myself.

At the same time, there was a big push by some fitness instructors to start teaching online. This involved finding a room to record (or just a big enough space to move around in), having good recording equipment, developing an online webpage where people could pay for the class. But the worst part for me is that I would not be able to see my participants to correct them or interact with them. In short, I wasn't happy with this alternative.

I also began to teach short sessions to my husband. Over time, we managed to develop a five-day schedule which included a 15-minute daily session involving weight training, cardiovascular exercise, or balance.

In short, I became a one-woman lab, paying attention to many things about myself. Everyone had challenges to meet and I met mine in my own way.

Here are some of the changes (which became challenges) which arose for me.

Weight

When the pandemic began, I was well aware of the need to watch my diet and avoid "stress eating." But no matter how often I tell myself that I should be cautious, I am still likely to convince myself that "one chocolate" or "one piece of pie" will not cause weight gain.

People with metabolic syndrome need to avoid fake sweeteners in all products but particularly in diet pop, trans fats, refined sugars, and alcohol. Diet pop and alcohol are not issues for me — I never touch them — and trans fats are prohibited in many foods today. But refined sugars are my nemesis. When things are out of kilter (as in a pandemic), I crave the comfort of sugar. Addiction, pure and simple. And then, of course, we eventually got to the holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas — and there was even MORE sugar to eat!

Despite the best of intentions, I have so far gained ten pounds. I have already begun the process of trying to lose it. Getting back to the same level of exercise I was experiencing for the 14 years I taught, however, will be difficult and it's depressing to think about how long it will take. My visions of sugar cubes will have to disappear!

Hair

I was due for a haircut just days after the lockdown began. Obviously, I cancelled that appointment. I used to get haircuts every six weeks, so I have now let my hair grow since February 21, 2020 — at this writing, just slightly over ten months.

As the days passed, it just seemed as though I might as well let my hair grow. Although it has a natural curl, I have fine, thin hair and when it's long it doesn't always look "full" so I have rarely let it grow. I have had long hair only twice during my lifetime — each time for about a year. The last time I had it long was nearly 50 years ago, when my son was a young child.

And so, just ten months after the pandemic began, I have hair down to my shoulder. I don't know yet if I am going to let it grow forever — we shall see. — but when I look in the mirror, I know things have been different for quite a while now.

Joint Range of Motion

As we age, many things can affect our joints, including arthritis and injuries. Movement of all joints through their full range of motion on a daily basis is important. For instance, the drawing at the left shows the range of motion for the shoulder joint.

All joints have a certain amount of mobility and can be classified in several categories: ball and socket, hinge, pivot, and gliding, to name some of the more common ones. Joints require constant attention, including moving them through their full range of motion on a fairly regular basis.

The benefits for range of motion exercises include:

When I was teaching fitness, I did a 10-15 minute warm-up with every class: just slow, simple movements that work the joints through their full range of motion. That means I was spending at least 40 minutes a week on range-of-motion movements. Add the regular exercises to that schedule, and I was easily doing 100-150 minutes a week.

I have not been able to maintain that during the pandemic and, as a result, I feel much more stiffness in my joints, especially in the morning.

For a more detailed discussion of joints, see Joints and Exercise.

Movement

I'm going to use the word "stiff" to describe what I began to feel as my exercise decreased. I'm 75 years old and I have osteoarthritis, though it is not bad. When I'm regularly exercising, I don't notice it much — just the occasional flare-up. But as the days, weeks and months went by, and as I exercised perhaps half what I was doing before, I began to awake in the morning with stiff joints much more often than I had before. I find that I must stretch slowly and meaningfully before I get out of bed.

For articles about the importance of movement, see: Genetics and Our Health: How much can we control. For a short little article about a study, see Seniors Like to Walk.

Lung capacity

You are thinking correctly: Lung capacity or "total lung capacity (TLC) is the volume of air in the lungs upon the maximum effort of inspiration." Among healthy adults, the average lung capacity is about 6 liters. Aerobic exercise can't increase lung function, but it can help improve lung capacity — the amount of oxygen you take in with each breath. Resistance workouts and breathing exercises help a person maintain lung capacity.

Age, gender, body composition, and ethnicity are factors affecting the different ranges of lung capacity among individuals. As we age, this process can become more difficult. Normally, regular exercise helps to keep the lungs working well. And today's devices — such as the Apple Watch — can now tell us many things about how our body is responding.

Before the pandemic, my lung capacity was excellent for a woman of my age. During the pandemic, with less exercise, I have been aware of a slight decrease in capacity.

Lung capacity is one of the most important benefits we get from exercise. Here's an article about that: Fitness Class Benefits.

Balance

Balance is such a critical skill for those of us in our 70's and older. In all of my fitness classes, I include balance drills. It's usually only about five minutes of the class, but it's a rather critical five minutes.

I don't think I have exceptionally good balance for my age — in fact, I think I'm about typical. A few months into the pandemic, I stepped on a horse chestnut and took a fall. The results of that have been a sprained ankle and a wrenched shoulder. Not good.

I have continued to try to practice my balance during the pandemic, but it seems more difficult. I am not sure why.

I have had my difficulties with balance and several years ago I wrote an article about a fall I had: After a Fall. Another article, Exercise and Balance, might give you more ideas about how to practice balance.

Lack of Social Interaction

This was perhaps the hardest to deal with. While I am a loner, and maybe no one enjoys being alone more than I do, I also crave interaction with other humans. I don't need it 24/7, but I do need to feel as though I'm helping others and staying involved.

My husband and I celebrated our 54th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago. There is no doubt that the pandemic has been more of a challenge to our marriage than anything ever before. The desire for privacy — both at home and sometimes when out shopping — has been hard to balance. We both needed time together and time apart and these didn't always coincide with each other.

For a more detailed discussion of this very important aspect of group fitness, see The Importance of Social Connections

Time Loss

Without appointments — doctor, dentist, hairdresser, fitness classes — and without regular routines, it was harder to remember what time it was, what day it was, what month it was.

I am a person with regular habits and even those were sometimes difficult to adhere to. Since I wasn't going anywhere, I tended to skip personal habits, or make them less frequent.

During the pandemic, I celebrated a birthday, an anniversary, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. These things helped to keep the movement of time within perspective.

Attitude/Anxiety

At the best of times, I will be prone to anxiety and always have to curb my emotions with common sense inner-talk. That has been no different during the pandemic. As always, I have had to look at the issues with a critical eye, knowing that many things were not in my control. Perhaps the most difficult part of the crisis to endure were those who didn't accept the science.

The statement by Isaac Asimov came to mind often: "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" I reminded myself often of that when boarding a bus and worrying about whether or not a confrontation might occur. Sometimes it seemed wiser to avoid saying anything to anyone.

I found myself being extra nice to store clerks — I felt so badly for those who suffered from abuse (physical and verbal) from those who didn't believe a mask was necessary. I wanted the clerk to know that I wouldn't give them a difficult time about wearing a mask.

Exercise can help with anxiety and depression and this article — Exercise and Depression — discusses that more.

But it wasn't all bad!

Attempting to remain positive always, it's not uncommon for me to try to find the bright spot in any story. My father was an optimist, while my mother was a pessimist. I think I gained a little from each.

So what wasn't so bad about the pandemic? Did I enjoy anything about it? Here's a list:

Final Words

Throughout the pandemic, I have struggled to cope with (1) the loss of my fitness classes and my own exercise schedule; (2) the constant concern about the pandemic itself; and (3) anger and frustration at those who ignored the rules or believed it was a hoax.

GROUP FITNESS VS. WORKING OUT ALONE

This is a big surprise to me. I am a loner by nature and always enjoy being alone to read a book or watch TV. But I enjoy being with others when I exercise. The routines are somewhat boring and repetitive and, no matter how hard one tries to exercise and complete all activities, it is difficult to do on your own.

In a class, I get more than exercise: I get socialization. I talk with the participants, they ask questions, we interact with each other. Losing this connection during the pandemic has been my greatest challenge.

UNDERSTANDING THE PANDEMIC AND THE SCIENCE INVOLVED VS. CONSPRIRACY THEORIES AND ACCUSATIONS OF A HOAX

I was constantly uplifted by the stories of heroes — healthcare workers, doctors, nurses — and those who struggled to survive in difficult circumstances. Those who protested the restrictions and put the rest of us in danger were very difficult to endure. I had no patience with them.

I wanted Canada to be like New Zealand — work together, beat the virus back, carry on with life. But New Zealand had advantages we didn't have — the first one being an island nation.

In the end, I'm not sure that humanity showed its greatest moments during this first planet-wide pandemic in 100 years. Instead, we saw inappropriate gatherings at beaches, government ministers who took holidays to the Caribbean after telling everyone else to stay home, denial of the virus's existence by some of the most powerful people on the planet, dentists who gathered for a convention without due consideration for the virus — and on and on it goes.

I predict that we will see some permanent changes — plexiglass and an effort to keep our distance from strangers will become a long-term reality. For some people, masks will be the only way they feel safe. Large-group events may never be the same, though humanity's love for large crowds whether it be a sports event or a rock band concert will probably never let them completely die either. But there may be people who never are willing to return to a large-crowd setting. For someone who never liked large crowds anyway, I am pretty sure where my preferences will lie.

Other related articles of interest:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. There are a number of versions of the stages of grief. They include anywhere from 4 to 12 stages. You will find these 5 stages listed on theWebMD website for "What is Normal Grieving and What are the Stages of Grief?"