As the world grapples with the effects of COVID-19, social distancing has become the new normal – at least for now. With gyms, beaches, and parks temporarily closed and people being encouraged to stay at home, it’s easy to let your exercise routine fall by the wayside. And working from home or lacking a daily routine can make it hard to keep up with any physical activity at all.
But you can get a good workout in the comfort of your own home, even if you don’t have a dedicated workout space or fancy machines. In fact, you don’t actually need any props, although a few small dumbbells can come in handy.
Muscle-strengthening exercises are being increasingly recognized as playing an important role in cardiovascular health. “Most people only think of aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, for heart health. They don’t always consider strength training,” says Eric L’Italien, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Also known as weight training or resistance training, strength training refers to any exercise that uses resistance, either from your own body weight, free weights, or specialized machines.
Why weight training helps
A recent study found that people who did strength training for just one hour a week had a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from heart disease compared with people who didn’t do any. The two main factors that seemed to mediate this benefit were stronger quadriceps muscles (the muscles in the fronts of the thighs) and a decrease in body mass index. The study was published in March 2019 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Stronger muscles help your body pull oxygen and nutrients from the bloodstream more efficiently, lightening the load on your heart. And when you boost your muscle mass, you burn more calories, both during and after exercise.
Two to try
First, check with your doctor before doing any new exercise regimen, which should ideally include some brisk walking or another activity that raises your heart rate. To add some simple strength training to your routine, L’Italien suggests starting with two basic exercises that strengthen a wide range of muscles in the body: a squat and a bent-over row (see photos below).
Begin by marching in place and doing some arm circles for a few minutes to warm up your muscles. For an easier version of the squat, simply stand from a seated position. Use your hands to push on the arms of the chair for support, then graduate to standing without using your arms. Try the bent-over row exercise first without weights, just to see how it feels. When you’re ready, you can try holding a dumbbell (anywhere from 2 to 10 pounds), which you can buy at a big-box store or a sporting goods store. For each exercise, try to do three sets of eight to 10 repetitions (reps), resting between each set.
The nice thing about these exercises is that you can do them in your living room while watching television or listening to your favorite music (or an audiobook or podcast). As you become stronger, gradually increase the number of reps you perform in each set, says L’Italien. For examples of other strengthening exercises to add to your workout, see the National Institutes of Health’s Go4Life website (go4life.nia.nih.gov).
Simple strength training exercises
Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your thighs. Hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees to lower your buttocks toward the floor as if sitting down in a chair, while resting your hands on your thighs. Stop with your buttocks above knee level. Return to the starting position. This is one rep.
Stand with a weight in your left hand and a bench or sturdy chair at your right side. Place your right hand and knee on the bench or chair seat. Let your left arm hang directly under your right shoulder, fully extended toward the floor. Keep your shoulders and hips squared, and don’t arch or bend your back. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, then bend your elbow to slowly lift the weight toward your ribs. Return to the starting position. Finish all reps, then repeat with the opposite arm. This completes one set.
Exercise photos by Michael Carroll
Image: Victoria Gnatiuk/Getty Images