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We’re exercising less during the coronavirus pandemic — here’s why

Reduced Fitbit step counts. Dashed weight loss goals on Lose It! Will our clothes still fit when this thing is over?

Michele Vincent and her four children, Peter, 13, Mason, 16 months, Charlie, 6, and Lia, 9. She is busy homeschooling them and working herself, but she, like many others, are taking fewer steps than before we all started working from home.
Michele Vincent and her four children, Peter, 13, Mason, 16 months, Charlie, 6, and Lia, 9. She is busy homeschooling them and working herself, but she, like many others, are taking fewer steps than before we all started working from home.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

You know who’s turned all holier-than-thou? The health app on my phone. “You haven’t walked and run as far this month as last month," it sniffed this morning.

Oh, I’m sorry if there’s a pandemic on, and Governor Charlie Baker has issued a binge-in-place, shelter-on-your couch advisory. And that April was so cold and wet it should be reclassified as March.

Yeah, I know some people are using the #GiftOfTime to get more exercise than ever!

They’re zooming with Pilates instructors, running stairs, getting full body workouts using a hair elastic for resistance. When the pandemic is called off, their jeans will not be a stress point.

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But the rest of us? Between homeschooling the kids, sanitizing incoming groceries, working if we’re lucky — and trying to avoid crowded outdoor spaces for fear of this potentially lethal virus —we’re scared and busy.

It’s a sedentary tale told in Fitbit data for Boston. The company looked at its users’ step counts through mid-April, and, big surprise, we’re becoming one with our couches.

The largest drop-off in movement was among 18-29 year-olds. Why? It’s likely because they were moving the most before, according to Fitbit, but also because, based on personal anecdotal evidence, they’re the ones who’ve swapped campus life for Fortnite in my basement.

These young adults walked or ran about a mile and a half less per day this April than last April, or, to put it in step terms, that’s 7,504 daily steps in April 2020 compared with 10,742 daily steps in April 2019.

The people who’ve lost the fewest steps are the 65+ crowd, dropping from 8,238 daily steps in April of 2019 compared with 7,289 this April.

It’s not that people have just given up on exercise. In fact, Fitbit’s numbers show an actual increase in deliberate workouts — people walking or running for more than 10 minutes at a time.

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The big difference is all the moving around we used to do without thinking about it, back when going to work meant GOING TO work, and included a dash to the bus and two flights of stairs, and coffee was a walk down the street, and meetings were in distant conference rooms, and the bathroom and kitchen weren’t each feet from your desk.

In Belmont, Michele Vincent, 37, a mother of four (one of whom has the chutzpah to be 16 months old), has not only been robbed of her own steps — to and from yoga, around the office, out running errands — she’s also losing secondhand steps.

Her three older kids’ soccer has been canceled, which means she’s not walking across fields, not kicking a ball around at halftime, not hustling back to the SUV to change the baby.

“Because I’m still working, it’s not like I have nothing to do all day,” she said, “but by the time evening comes, and I finally have time to myself, all I want to do, honestly, is relax.”

Not to make excuses.

It’s a similar story in Medford, where Kerri Babish, 39, who used to do most of her errands on foot, is losing coffee-shop-related incidental exercise.

“There’s nowhere to go,” she said. “No destinations.”

She’s 15 weeks pregnant with her third child, and her midwife is urging her to exercise. But between the need to mask-up before taking a walk, and the stress of keeping herself and her grade schoolers 6 feet away from passing walkers and runners, strolling has gotten mentally exhausting.

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“Once you run through three or four scenarios [of what could go wrong], you run out of energy to do the thing you were considering doing in the first place,” she said.

The extent of our inactivity has yet to be fully measured, but Mark Tremblay, founder of the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network (a real group) is seeing evidence to support his fears that many people have reduced movement.

In early April in Canada, TV time rose 66 percent among those age 15-49, and video gaming rose 35 percent.

One likely factor driving sedentary behavior is job loss, he said. “Almost all employment involves some sort of movement. If you’re making submarine sandwiches it involves standing and moving, whereas at home you’ll likely be sitting more.”

Oh, we almost forgot to talk about yet another side effect of this pandemic: CNN has yet to start a tally of confirmed cases of quarantine-induced muffin top, but Lose It!, the weight-loss app, says that average weight loss is down 27 percent (although there has been a spike in new users).

And those are the people who are at least brave enough to enter their calories.

So low are expectations for fitness and weight maintenance that a company that makes wearable trackers and other monitors sent out a press release positioning negative markers for health as positives simply because the numbers weren’t as bad as they might have been.

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“Americans are not piling on the pounds!!” beamed the release from Withings, a French consumer electronics company. The great news? In the US, only 37 percent of Withings consumers have gained more than a pound.

So far.

In Milton, real estate agent Larry Lawfer, 69, has not yet gained the Covid 19 (as in 19 pounds), but he has put on 4 — well, 7 really, but he’s dropped 3. That’s thanks to a strategy that includes carrying, not rolling, garbage and recycling bins to the curb, and forcing himself to drink up to 110 ounces of water a day, and then running to a bathroom on a distant floor of his three-story home.

“It’s bizarre,” he said.

True, but these days what isn’t?


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.