Pandemic propels rise in walking’s popularity among B.C. residents

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British Columbia is usually ranked as the fittest province in the country, consistently boasting a higher incidence of residents who take on fitness activities on a weekly basis.

That was before the COVID-19 introduced new challenges for anyone who enjoys sports.

In the spring, we saw gyms and yoga studios closing and sometimes going out of business. Recreational leagues were compelled to postpone or cancel their seasons, and even pick-up games were abandoned. Some activities returned in the summer, but as we head to rainier days, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked British Columbians about their “new normal” when it comes to exercise.

The one activity that does not require any special equipment has been the de facto fitness lifeline in the province. Two-thirds of British Columbians (66%) say they are walking more often than before the COVID-19 pandemic began. This finding is particularly interesting, as many adult residents of our province are still working from home, and are unable to have any leisurely strolls to and from the office, or to simply walk in order to buy something for lunch.

Two other fitness activities show some positive momentum. Just over one in four British Columbians (26%) are running or jogging more now than before the pandemic, while 14% are exercising this way less often. The numbers are similar when it comes to cycling, with 24% saying they have done this more often and 16% not getting on their bikes as much as they did before the pandemic.

Almost three in 10 Metro Vancouverites (28%) have grown fonder of running and jogging, while 34% of residents of southern B.C. claim to be cycling more often now than before COVID-19.

Yoga has always been a polarizing exercise, and its stature has not been affected by the pandemic. While some high-profile studios have closed their doors – temporarily or definitively – some residents have found videos online to continue learning poses. While 19% of British Columbians are practising yoga more often now, 18% are starting to leave it behind. Women are relying on yoga more at this stage (22%) than men (17%).

The momentum is not positive for activities that British Columbians used to enjoy at indoor venues. One in four (24%) are lifting weights less often now, and 21% are not climbing on the cardiovascular cross-trainer machines such as ellipticals, stationary bikes and treadmills as much as they did in February.

While some gyms have begun to reopen under strict guidelines for social distancing and new cleaning protocols, most of the growth in weightlifting and cardio has come in the form of residents who acquired equipment for the home. Back in May, 47% of British Columbians, including 54% of women, told us they would not go to the gym without a vaccine.

Two other activities – hiking and climbing – have not grown over the past few months, with 29% of British Columbians hiking less often than before the pandemic, and 16% not climbing as much. In stark contrast, 18% of British Columbians say they are playing golf more often now than they did before COVID-19, although 57% have never cared for this game.

The temporary closure of pools has affected swimmers, with 29% saying they are venturing into the water less often than they did pre-pandemic. One in four (24%) are also not canoeing, kayaking, surfing or paddle boarding as much as they used to.

Activities that require opponents and teams are also suffering. Racket sports, where the traditional handshake at the end of a match has been abandoned even at the professional level, have seen a drop in players, with 19% of British Columbians saying they have played less in the past six months.

A similar proportion of the province’s residents (18%) are not playing team sports as much as they used to. Recreational leagues postponed play during the spring and summer, and there is no guarantee about a complete return in the fall. Even pick-up games have been affected, as we try to grasp the concept of social distancing while trying to block a shot in a basketball court or a soccer pitch.

The results of this survey offer mixed reviews on how British Columbians are dealing with the forced changes to their exercise routines. Two-thirds have resorted to walking as a way to escape the pandemic. Some have sought assistance online to follow weightlifting and yoga routines. Cyclists and joggers are more likely to be hitting the road more often than before. Enthusiasts of other sports eagerly await a vaccine that can return the cleats to their feet and the rackets to their hands. For now, the streets and sidewalks will have to do.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from September 3 to September 5, 2020, among 800 adults in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.