Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

A new variant.,

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ImageDaily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.
Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

A new variant of the coronavirus was reported in South Africa, sending stocks around the world tumbling and prompting the U.S. and other countries to reinstate travel restrictions. The W.H.O. said the new variant was “of concern” and gave it the name Omicron.

The newly identified variant, initially called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform. On the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells, the new variant has 10 mutations. In comparison, the Beta variant has three and the Delta variant two, he said.

There is no proof yet that the variant could diminish the protective power of the vaccines, but uncertainty on that question was one factor in the speed with which countries moved toward restrictions. A senior administration official said the Biden administration would restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African countries to try to contain the new variant.

Still, even epidemiologists who have been the most outspoken in encouraging protection from the virus urged calm, noting that little is known about the variant and that several seemingly threatening variants have come and gone in recent months.

So far only a few dozen cases of the new variant have been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

But the person in Israel who contracted the variant had recently arrived from Malawi, according to the state broadcaster, Kan. And the case in Belgium was detected in a young, unvaccinated woman who had recently returned from travel abroad, but not to South Africa or neighboring countries, Belgian researchers said.


Now that we’re officially in holiday season — when putting on a few pounds comes with the territory — we thought we’d reach out to Gretchen Reynolds, who covers fitness for The Times, for advice on maximizing pandemic workouts.

At the beginning of the pandemic, gyms shut down and some of us gained weight — putting on the so-called Covid 15. Two years later, where are we with fitness?

There is some new research that suggests that people are becoming more inactive all of the time. A couple of good-sized survey studies that used smartphone data just came out, and overall, peoples’ step counts have dropped by at least a quarter over the past six months. That’s huge. That’s not just exercise, that’s how much people are moving, period. It seems as if nearly all of us are moving a lot less and exercising less.

But there were also interesting differences among age groups. It appears that the groups that are being the least active, and getting the least exercise by far, are children and parents. Especially people who have young children. It’s just been so hard to find time. One group that is actually getting more exercise is people over the age of 65. That may be partly because they became worried about health, and started walking more as a result.

What are some current trends in fitness?

People are interested in trying to find ways to be active that don’t put them at greater risk for infection. So there’s been a big rise in sales of running shoes and e-bikes. There is evidence that, pretty much across the board, gym memberships have dropped, and they haven’t returned to prepandemic levels. Whether people will return to group classes is also not clear yet. I’ve had many gym owners tell me they’re never going to offer group classes again because of the liability, the issues with how you do social distancing, and also because they can’t find teachers.

At the same time, we are also seeing a drop in some of the types of fitness that people increasingly adopted during the pandemic, like Peloton. The company’s bike sales are down, and it’s quite possible that we’re now seeing in-home fitness fatigue. People are tired of doing online classes. A lot of people really like the social aspects of exercise, and it’s hard to replicate that at home.

What are some current popular fitness options?

There’s a lot of interest in HIIT — high intensity interval training — because you can find a lot of HIIT-related classes online, many of them free, and they’re very short. There’s also real interest in a topic called exercise snacks, which is basically how you can fit physical activity that is not quite exercise into your daily life, for example, by spending two minutes going up and down stairs four or five times during the day. For people who are truly time-strapped — and that is a lot of people now — these exercise snacks can actually count as a workout.

Are there any trends that worry you?

I think we have a real issue with children. When children are not in school, they have not been getting exercise.

Participation and interest in sports are also down, which is typically one way that a lot of children are active. Kids may not want to return to team sports, or their parents may not want them to resume those activities. Whether they will continue with physical activity classes at school is also not clear. So the long-term health implications for children because of the drop in physical activity are really worrisome, and I don’t think we’ve started thinking about that enough yet.

Any tips on making pandemic fitness easier?

Get outside to exercise. Research suggests that outdoor exercise has a greater effect on your sense of well-being and raises your mood more. If you can just go out and walk for 10 minutes, it can make an enormous difference in your mood, and it has a really measurable health impact.


We asked readers for their pandemic fitness tips. Thanks to the hundreds of you who wrote in with advice.

“During the pandemic, on a whim, I went for a run without my phone, and therefore without music, for the first time in years. I was shocked to discover that without music, you can hear not only the world around you, but yourself! Listening to my footfalls allowed me to fix my stride, make it quieter where it needed to be, and decrease my heal strike. Added bonus? When you can hear yourself breathing, you can fix that, too.” — Madeleine Michael, New York, N.Y.

“I use the 5-minute rule. When I really don’t want to run, I tell myself I can quit after 5 minutes if I feel lousy. But I find that getting started is the hardest part, and I don’t feel like stopping after 5 minutes.” — Susan Schorling, Richmond, Va.

“Whatever your exercise of choice, make it fun and track your progress. It encourages you to come back. I aim to average 30 minutes per day over 365 days. So far since I starting tracking, I’ve done 14,000 miles in 7 years and have solved a number of health problems as a result.” — Jonathan Wilkofsky, Brooklyn, N.Y.

“I’m a gender nonbinary person so it feels really rewarding to be able to work out topless in my full-length mirror. I could never do that at the gym. I play my music loudly and sing along through my reps.” — Jesi, West Hollywood, Calif.

“I got a pandemic dog! This active creature needs to walk for exercise at least twice a day. His excitement keeps me going!” — Alison, San Jose, Calif.

“Climb the stairs to the upstairs bathroom. Step in place when waiting for the microwave. Pace while on the phone. Be inefficient, meaning make multiple trips rather than one. Fill a pitcher with the amount of water you should drink every day. Mine is a pretty etched-glass one. I get positive feedback as I watch the water level lower.” — Charlotte Jenkins, Minneapolis

“Find a group of friends with similar exercise abilities. I have a group for hiking and a separate group for biking. I found these friends by joining local organizations and narrowing down those with similar abilities. It helped tremendously during 2020. Spending so much time outside, distanced, exercising with friends made the year pass quickly.” — Beth Sellers, Oro Valley, Ariz.



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