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Digital fitness booms in 2020 due to covid-19 lockdowns

Women lead a massive increase in indoor fitness activity and solo workouts, according to fitness site Strava's 'Year in Sport' data

Digital and indoor fitness saw a big boost in 2020, mostly led by women. (Photo: Istockphoto)

The global covid-19 pandemic lockdowns have resulted in a big boom in exercise across the globe in 2020 with walking and home workouts recording the highest growth. This is among the main findings of the annual Year in Sport data collected by Strava, a US-based internet service for tracking exercise.

Over 73 million users from around the world uploaded over 1.1 billion activities on Strava’s app and website in the past 12 months. Part of this increase in activities uploaded to Strava is due to the 23 million new users Strava gained since February, but the main spike is due to people becoming a lot more active while trying to adapt to the new normal. This made 2020 one of the most active years since Strava began tracking activity in 2009. Global activity rates on Strava increased exponentially, peaking with over 30 million weekly uploads in May 2020, a record high for the platform.

“Community members shared more than a billion activities including nearly 400 million photos with each other, from solitary virtual marathons and Everesting bike rides to midday walks while working from home. And through it all, athletes from around the world cheered each other on, proving that every effort counts and people keep people active,” says Michael Horvath, CEO, Strava.

The growth in fitness activities this year was globally led by women. (Photo: Istockphoto)
The growth in fitness activities this year was globally led by women. (Photo: Istockphoto)

Women lead the way

Though Strava hasn’t released India-specific figures or a detailed country-wise breakup of the data (Japan was the only Asian country in its Euro-American centric highlights presentation), the growth this year was led by women globally. Between April and September 2020, women aged 18-29 uploaded 45.2% more activities than during the same period last year, compared to a 27.3% increase by their male counterparts. Also, people who were active last year increased their workout frequency by 13.3% this year, with women and young athletes leading the charge and the yearly moving time (i.e. time spent on any activity) jumped by 14.7%.

There was a spike in indoor workouts in countries with strict lockdown rules like India. (Photo: Istockphoto)
There was a spike in indoor workouts in countries with strict lockdown rules like India. (Photo: Istockphoto)

Spike in walking and indoor workouts

While running grew by 1.9 times and cycling by 1.8 times, walking was the most popular activity on Strava this year with a 300% rise. Walking and running remain the most popular sports on the platform. Walking was also the top new activity for cyclists on the platform between April and June.

During the lockdown, due to the different social-distancing rules in different countries, the activities that people took to was varied as well. Walking, running and cycling activities dipped in countries with strict lockdowns, such as India, Spain and Italy. In countries with pro-outdoor exercise rules and milder lockdowns such as the UK and the US, there was a big rise in outdoor activities, even as working from home became the norm. Those in strict lockdowns drove the rise in indoor workouts such as yoga, cross-training and weight-lifting. Altogether, indoor workout activities grew by 2.2 times.

Specific forms of exercise activities like Everesting saw a spike this year. (Photo: Istockphoto)
Specific forms of exercise activities like Everesting saw a spike this year. (Photo: Istockphoto)

Everesting peaks

Everesting is the act of accumulating 29,029ft (Mt. Everest’s height) in any one activity by repeating a single climb. This can be in the form of running, walking or cycling, though it’s most practiced by cyclists. In 2020, it surged in popularity. There were 600% more successful Everesting rides in June compared to the same period in 2019. India saw a huge rise in successful Everesting attempts.

“Last year there were just four or five cyclists who had done that,” says Dipankar Paul, 38, a Bengaluru-based Ironman-certified coach. “This year there are 94 of them.” Paul completed an indoor Everesting ride on his cycle in support of a cyclist friend who had contracted covid-19. “He tried Everesting shortly after recovering from covid but since his lung capacity was greatly damaged and he was extremely fatigued, he had to give up at three-fourths of the way. So, I did it for him,” he said.

Paul attributes the rise in Everesting attempts in India to two things: the extra time people hadto themselves during the lockdown; and an increased attention to fitness as people adapted to the new work-from-home life. The Strava data partially explains the waiting list for cycles in India due to a huge increase in demand.

According to Strava's Global Heatmap, Kerala has the highest levels of fitness activities. This is followed by Punjab and Delhi. (Photo: Istockphoto)
According to Strava's Global Heatmap, Kerala has the highest levels of fitness activities. This is followed by Punjab and Delhi. (Photo: Istockphoto)

India's exercise hotspots

Despite the lack of India-specific data, India’s most active regions can be easily spotted on Strava’s Global Heatmap, a visualisation of two years worth of trailing data from Strava’s global network of athletes. The Heatmap shows 'heat' made by aggregated public activities.

Going by the Heatmap, unsurprisingly, India’s fitness hotspots are to be found in urban areas and in big cities, where lifestyle gadgets and fitness trackers are more common. Kerala is the brightest region on the Heatmap, indicating high levels of activity all across the state. This is followed by a big dense spot in the north in Punjab; Delhi is the most active city in the northern region. Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chandigarh are among the other active cities in India. The west coast of the country is a lot more active than the east while most northern and central states including Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh show little activity. Southern states are generally much more activity, including Telangana, which shows high activity.

Globally, cyclists and runners logged 10 billion miles. (Photo: Istockphoto)
Globally, cyclists and runners logged 10 billion miles. (Photo: Istockphoto)

Personal bests and solo races

The fact that this activity boom came when most mass-participation races were cancelled or restricted to elite athletes only makes the figures all the more remarkable. Despite the cancelled events, 55% runners hit a new PR (personal record) in their 5km, 10km, half marathon or marathon distances this year. However, the number of marathon distance runs uploaded this year was lower than in 2019 and 44% of those were run completely solo, compared to just 14% last year. In April, 76% of all marathons were run solo, which is 10 times more than in April 2019.

Globally, cyclists logged 8.1 billion miles with 400 billion feet of elevation gain, while runners added an additional 1.9 billion miles and 94.5 billion feet of climbing.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    18.12.2020 | 08:00 AM IST
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