How the Quarantine Has Shaped Our Bodies and the Spaces We Inhabit

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These days, I carve out 30 minutes on weekdays and an hour on weekends for a workout, but I was never this physically active before we were essentially locked away for nine months.

Prior to the first community quarantine, I considered the short walk from the corner of the street to my office as exercise. Climbing the stairs on the way to my floor was part of cardio. Years of brisk-walking to class at a university known for its sprawling, verdant campus made me somewhat apprehensive toward the idea of going to the gym. More than getting my heart rate up, exercise had to include sunshine and new things to see. Aside from remembering what my daily routine looked like before a pandemic forced a world indoors, I can vividly recall how much ground I could cover in a 30-minute sprint from one end of town to another, rife with blurry images of other people rushing to the transport terminal, and the ghost of the weight of my work bag on my shoulder.

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Sometime in March, when working from home and Dalgona coffee were new things to do, home workouts were suggested for people who were feeling the loss of their local gym closing due to COVID-19 regulations. To engage with both new and prospective clients, fitness studios even rolled out virtual sessions for people to try anything from yoga to indoor cycling. Exercising seemed like something entirely possible to make time for, since leaving the house for “nonessential” errands were highly discouraged. After all, for most, the main barrier to including regular exercise in their week is having no time to spare for it, what with the hours already being factored in for traffic.

In several articles about coping with quarantine directives, exercise is highly recommended as part of one’s day, framed as a way not just to improve physical health but also to boost mental health. For instance, HealthDirect Australia shared how regular exercise “can reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and help with recovery from mental health issues.”

Given the early stage of social and lifestyle changes at the time, working out was another new activity to try. No one was sure where things were going, so hoping for the best could extend to everything from ironing out remote arrangements to picking up new skills. Along with baking bread, watching movies with friends through video calls, or taking free online courses to pass the time, exercise was something posted on social media to be hashtagged.

At one point, my story feed was a montage of selfies on a yoga mat, of friends in neutral-toned activewear smiling at the camera, or of people snapping a photo of an adjacent mirror. Getting “quaran-toned” was a cheerful GIF-sticker portmanteau which came to mean putting in the physical work during the quarantine to attain the version of the body one wanted. Suddenly nothing was stopping my friends whose office travel time also kept them from trying an exercise challenge or two.

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It was probably the optimism of early quarantine that fueled workout challenges left and right, some popular enough to spurt articles cautioning against mindlessly taking the advice of certain fitness influencers.One influencer’s program promised getting “shredded in two weeks,” replete with a photo of core muscles so defined that they look contoured. The objective was clear: Follow a routine, and tick off this life-goals item during the quarantine to get fit or lose weight.

No one in this lifetime had gone through a pandemic situation with the exact circumstances we are currently in, so it isn’t surprising how people responded to uncertainty with an attempt at positivity. Our collective grasp on whatever form of optimism we held onto came loose months later. One too many emails extolling the virtues of using presumed downtime for self-improvement drove writer Kiran Misra to point out that “taking space to do things that aren’t necessarily productive, or part of a pages-long to-do list, reminds us that there is more to our time on this planet than just getting things done.” By then, posts about getting “quaran-toned” were a rare sight on my social media feed, especially since challenges were often time-bound by a tangible goal. Though the novelty has since worn off, getting the body moving could still be seen as a way to focus on one’s locus of control. While the long-term mental health benefits of exercise are still being studied, the notion of physical activity improving one’s mood have already been documented. Controlling a global pandemic is unrealistic, but adjusting one’s reaction to the situation by improving the mood is doable.

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Working out how to react to uncertain or stressful situations also requires applying some form of mindfulness, or simply put, paying attention to the present. Mindfulness has been differentiated from meditation as “the experience of being open and aware in the present moment, without reflexive judgment, automatic criticism or mind wandering,” which can be applied in tense circumstances throughout the day beyond the few minutes set aside to meditate.

Being fully present in one’s body may also help people deal with the cloud of irritation that comes with being stuck in the rotation of home, local supermarket, or nearby pharmacy for most of the year. Having this presence of mind can be amplified by having pockets of space to do deep breaths within the work calendar, looking around the room without seeing the need to be the dictionary definition of efficient for a few good minutes, or sweating it out through exercise.

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Discussing a new wave of mindfulness workouts, sports psychologist Ariane Machin shared that these activities are a way for people “to fuel themselves with good stuff that incorporates spirituality and physical effort.” Using physical activity to change how we think and feel isn’t a habit of the times we find ourselves in, but it has become pertinent as we are in a situation we haven’t yet been conditioned to react to.

This isn’t to invalidate how we feel in the first few seconds as we read through a mood-dampening article on our feed. In fact, acknowledging our feelings is part of applying mindfulness, especially in avoiding doomscrolling. Cleveland psychologist Susan Albers discussed that “when you pay attention consciously to the bad feelings such as anxiety, agitation or stress, it’s more likely to motivate you to put on the brakes.”

Carving out time for purely existing in the spaces we can safely be in, no matter how small, can help us balance what we feel with what we can do. This also means being okay with the fact that what methods work for some may not work for your own sanity or being. For instance, some people experience the benefits of meditation most when it is done shortly after waking up; others when they’re about to sleep. Mindfulness isn’t only found in the moments of silence. Really, to each their own.

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Sitting in a quiet room can be hard to attain, especially when sharing floorspace with several family members, or logging in to a morning meeting without so much as a cup of coffee after clocking off late the night before. But being present for the points of chaos, too, is a way to approach our situation. Getting toned is a goal, but simply moving the body, and being in the same place as others without letting the mind wander too much on a never-ending task list or whatever news item welcomed us the moment we opened our social platforms, is a habit that can help us breathe.

As much as we are beings with bodies and minds, we also exist in spaces and within networks of people interacting at a physical distance. We may be physically apart, but in acknowledging the fact that we are still here, we can take comfort in being there for each other and working to make things better.

This article was written by our contributor, Pia Salazar.

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