One consequence of the pandemic is that it severely restricted the ability of Minnesotans to exercise. Gyms, pools, and training facilities were closed for several weeks or longer.

Sure, people could exercise on their own if they happen to have a home gym or didn’t need equipment, but there’s a reason people like me join a health club. It’s to access the wide range of weights, equipment, swimming pool, specialized training, and health and wellness classes to improve our physical and mental health.

Gyms and training facilities are now open, even if classes and some amenities are limited. I went to my gym the day it reopened and haven’t missed a day since. Unfortunately, I still can’t achieve the amount of weights I was lifting or the level of cardio intensity I had pre-shutdown. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I probably never will due to my age and the length of time it takes to reverse atrophy.

I realize some people will say I’m selfish for wanting to go to a gym during a pandemic. When it comes to my health, I am selfish. I have pins, plates, and screws in both ankles as a result of a plane crash 25 years ago. One reason I workout is to maintain my mobility. Part of my routine is to walk laps in a pool as physical therapy to encourage flexibility and prevent stiffness.

I have not regained my pre-shutdown mobility, which affects my ability to walk correctly and has resulted in chronic pain. What’s maddening is that politicians, not physicians, were willing to trade my and others’ health care concerns for another set of concerns. Seems like we could have dealt with the pandemic without stepping on other health care issues.

Exercising is not a vanity project and should not be deemed non-essential. It’s no secret that obesity is a problem for both adults and kids. The Heart Foundation says the average American is active for less than 20 minutes every day and 25% of American adults sit for more than eight hours each day.

Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18.5% of 2- to 19-year-olds in the U.S., which is about 13.7 million kids, are obese. Being severely overweight, and problems related to obesity, can be fatal. It’s why many health care writers and experts say sitting is the new smoking.

Kids typically need to have physical activities organized, even if it’s one kid messaging others to meet at a basketball court or soccer field to play. When facilities were closed, it added another hurdle to exercising. Some teens were at our house recently. I asked them if they ever get together to play games like Kick the Can, which they can do anywhere. One told me he’d only played it in elementary gym class, and another asked me why he’d want to kick a can.

I’ve read several articles with pediatricians and public health experts saying they expect a dramatic increase in childhood obesity this year as a result of poor eating habits and less exercise that were prevalent during the lockdown. Patterns, such as unhealthy eating and not exercising, that start in childhood often carry into adulthood.

One problem, according to an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University who co-authored a recent study on exercising during the pandemic, is that even as restrictions are lifted, people who stopped exercising, even for just a few weeks, have trouble reengaging. “It is incredibly difficult to get somebody who is not already active to become active,” the professor noted. “Now what we’re seeing is people who used to be active are not being active.”

A study by the University of Southern California’s Center for the Digital Future found that 32% of Americans are exercising less than before the pandemic. I realize there’s no one right answer for how to best protect people during a pandemic while still promoting sports and exercising. Hopefully we can continue to learn and follow best practices that enable people who want to play sports and stay in shape to do so. This requires giving us an active say in our own heath and wellness.

Brett Martin is a community columnist who’s been a Shakopee resident for over 15 years.

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