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Change of pace: Pandemic spurs metro Atlantans to more active life

Nearly half of Americans exercising more, according to one study
Mary Anne Walser (right) and Jimmy Smith hike with their Golden Doodle Zaha at the East Palisades Trail near the Chattahoochee River in Sandy Springs. The couple began exploring the trails of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area after the coronavirus pandemic hit and have logged many miles walking. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Mary Anne Walser (right) and Jimmy Smith hike with their Golden Doodle Zaha at the East Palisades Trail near the Chattahoochee River in Sandy Springs. The couple began exploring the trails of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area after the coronavirus pandemic hit and have logged many miles walking. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

The arrival of COVID-19 early in 2020 brought an end to Jimmy Smith and Mary Anne Walser’s plans to head to Europe and walk the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrim’s path that ends in Spain.

Then, their gym closed, restaurants shuttered, and social activities skidded to a halt. Their occasional consolatory neighborhood walks became longer and more frequent, leading them to the section of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area that abuts their northwest Atlanta neighborhood. By summer, they were walking for hours each week, “forest bathing,” as Walser calls it.

“I had no clue — until it was the only place we could go — how many trails are back there,” she said.

While some found solace in cocooning, comfort food and streaming “Tiger King” and “The Mandalorian” when the virus locked Georgia down, the couple is among those who rebelled against the isolation by getting out and exercising more.

“We just started thinking, `Well, I wonder what’s down here?’” Smith said. So they just kept going and going.

Though the coronavirus has killed more than half a million Americans, there are signs it inspired and gave many people time to get physically active, which could have a positive impact on U.S. health trends.

The Physical Activities Council, representing eight large U.S. sporting trade groups, surveyed 18,000 people and estimated that 6.9 million potatoes got off their couches in 2020, dropping the number of inactive Americans to 74.3 million.

A survey of 873 people by the College of Saint Benedict/St. John’s University found 34.9% decreased weekly physical activity from March to June, but 48.1% increased it, while 17% remained at the same level.

Mary Stenson, who helped conduct the St. John’s study, said she can’t recall any other event that created such a dramatic impact on Americans’ physical routines. The length of the pandemic gave people time to develop exercise habits, which makes them more likely to stick to them, and bodes well for a drop in health problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Daniel Andretta, a 34-year-old Cherokee County father of four, was another one of those changed by the pandemic.

His post-college weight had ballooned to about 240 pounds. In late 2019, a doctor told him he faced health problems unless he started exercising. So, he joined F3, a free men’s exercise fellowship, for two 45-minute sessions a week.

“Once the quarantine happened, I said this is the time I can kick my butt and get into gear,” he said.

He started going to outdoor workouts every morning, mixing in boot camps, trail runs, organized 5K or half-marathon races, and he began cooking healthier meals for the family. He’s lost about 50 pounds and says he’s never felt better.

“For me, getting out there every single day whether I want to or not is what is keeping me going through this quarantine,” Andretta said.

Members of the F3 men's exercise group in Cherokee County practice some pre-dawn plank exercises. Daniel Andretta began meeting with the group every week day after COVID-19 hit the U.S. in a bid to get healthier. He's lost about 50 pounds in the year since he joined.

Credit: courtesy of Nathan Fowler

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Credit: courtesy of Nathan Fowler

Even as gyms closed — nearly one in five in the U.S. for good, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association — metro Atlantans took over county parks, town greens, parking lots and neighborhood roads to exercise.

Bike shops sold out of stock leaving anxious buyers on weeks-long waiting lists. Lines of cars stacked up outside Georgia state parks — attendance was up half a million visitors in 2020 — as drivers waited for parking spots. The National Golf Foundation recorded a 13% rise in rounds played nationally.

Pegi Amend, 60, from Sandy Springs, saw her gym close in March. She started doing a 5K power walk every morning in her neighborhood. After two weeks, she set a goal of 365 consecutive days. By late last month, she had logged 342.

“I’m on my fourth pair of shoes,” she said.

Kyle Beardon’s two-year-old gym, the Milton Athletic Club, was ordered closed in April. He pivoted to Zoom classes, personal training and outdoor exercise for members.

After reopening in May, membership grew by 30%, he said, which he attributed to other gyms closing for good.

“Another factor is, I think, people are getting stir crazy at home and need a little social aspect to life,” he said.

Camp Gladiator, an exercise business, began operating in Georgia in 2020 just as the coronavirus pandemic hit. It moved many classes outdoors. Here, members exercise together in the Suwannee Town Green last spring.

Credit: courtesy of Brian Lamb

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Credit: courtesy of Brian Lamb

In Gwinnett County, Brian and McKenzie Lamb started Camp Gladiator in January 2020, a paid-membership business that uses church, business and public spaces for workouts.

“When it started getting warm and nice outside, the pandemic smacked us,” Brian Lamb said.

“There was a lot of fear. We thought we were going to have to shut down like everyone else.”

But they begin to add members rapidly as they moved events outside. There are now more than 1,000 members, he said.

Ryan Rivera, a Cobb County attorney, hadn’t played a round of golf since the birth of his son Parker five years before. Parker loves playing sports, including basketball, soccer and baseball. When the pandemic closed down spring baseball season, the two went on a few walks, tried fishing and would go to a field by themselves to hit and catch.

When a cloudy Saturday in May broke into sunshine, “I looked at Parker and said, ‘This may be the time to give golf a shot,’” he said.

Ryan Rivera and his son, 6-year-old Parker, work the links during a U.S. Kids Golf tournament at Chattahoochee Golf Club near Gainesville on Saturday, Feb 27.  Parker finished 4th place and took home a medal.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

They did, and young Parker was a natural. On his first hole — a par 3 built for adult players — he shot a 5 and immediately loved the game.

“I never could have dreamed or imagined he would have taken to it like he has,” Rivera said.

When they played other courses, Parker hit so well that friends suggested that he enter children’s golf programs and tournaments run by the PGA and U.S Kids Golf.

He did, and they began practicing together often, playing with Ryan’s father and entering tournaments. Parker finished third in his age group in his first one last October.

On Feb. 27, the 6-year-old got a fourth-place medal in the U.S. Kids Golf tournament in Hall County.

“The shutdown gave us the time to try something new,” Rivera said.

“And that time we get to spend together is really just priceless.”

Walser, the Chattahoochee walker, doesn’t want to give the wrong impression. Many have suffered because of the virus.

“But it really has changed our lives in a wonderful way, strangely,” she said.


They said it:

“I have been working from home since March of 2020. During 2020 I sat behind my computer easily 11 hours per day, I gained weight and became totally inactive. By August I felt terrible and decided to make a change. I now walk … three miles every weekday morning and on the weekends. … I feel 100% better and my weight loss goals are back on track.” — Therese May, Atlanta

“Up until last March, I belonged to two gyms. Since the pandemic, one gym closed permanently, and I dropped my other membership. So I began a walking regimen. I walk four to five miles every day. I have gotten to know my neighborhood and the surrounding ones extremely well. I’m sure I will keep this up to some extent from now on as it has been great to spend so much time outdoors.” — Anna Trude, Marietta

“About eight months into the pandemic, I hired a personal trainer and I meet with him twice a week. It’s been my saving grace since I’ve been mostly working from home since last March. A lot of what we do is outdoors, weather permitting, and it’s something I look forward to each week.” — Jessica Chatman, DeKalb County

“I have always been an avid, but casual, walker. … In order to stay physically and mentally fit, I began walking more each day. It was also a safe way for my young daughter to get out and be active and feel engaged with the world as we faced these unprecedented times. After walking 70 miles in June, I challenged myself to walk 100 miles in July. Seven months later, and I’m still walking 100 miles each month!” — Beverly Garrett-Thompson, Roswell

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