Stuck at home?

You can get a good workout anyway.

Published: November, 2020

The winter months present numerous challenges to maintaining your fitness in a typical year. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be harder than ever to get to the gym or your usual exercise class.

What can you do to keep your body in motion and not lose ground as the weather turns colder? The answer, luckily, is plenty, says Dr. Beth Frates, an assistant professor physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. There are many effective workouts that don't require a large space, a gym, expensive equipment, or even a live instructor.

Designing your exercise plan

Any workout plan should focus on three different areas, says Dr. Frates, president-elect for the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. These include aerobic activity, to improve cardiovascular fitness; stretching, to increase flexibility and range of motion; and strength training, to build muscle and protect against bone loss. Below is a sampling of possibilities in each category that you can use to achieve your workout goals.

Aerobic activity

To get your heart pumping, you'll want to participate in at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity (that is, a level where you can talk but not sing). If you can't hit the elliptical machine at the gym, you still have several options. Start with something as simple as walking around your house. If you are able, go up and down the stairs for a more intense challenge, says Dr. Frates. "Walking helps to increase the strength in the muscles around the joints, which helps to support the joints," says Dr. Frates. It's also a great exercise if you have arthritis.

Cycling is another joint-friendly choice to build your aerobic capacity. Again, if you've got arthritis, a lot of exercises can put strain on your knee joints, causing pain, but biking is not one of them. If you're working out at home this winter, consider investing in a portable pedaler, a little set of bike pedals (without the bike) that rests on the floor. These devices can cost less than $50. With your pedaler, you can squeeze in an effective workout while you're watching television or working on your computer.

It's a great way to get started with a cycling workout, and if you like it, you can eventually upgrade to a stationary bike or even take an online spin class to get a higher-intensity workout, says Dr. Frates.


In addition to aerobic activity, you'll also want to find exercises that stretch your body to improve flexibility and increase your range of motion. Maintaining flexibility can help ensure that your joints move freely. It can also improve your posture and reduce your risk of injuries.

Tai chi and yoga are two choices that require little more than an inexpensive mat or a soft rug along with an online workout video to get started. If you have trouble with a traditional yoga workout, you can try a chair yoga variation, which will allow you to stretch and strengthen muscles while you're sitting, avoiding pressure on painful joints, says Dr. Frates. Tai chi, often called meditation in motion, is an ancient Chinese practice that consists of sequences of slow, flowing movements that promote both fitness and relaxation. As a workout, it's part balance, part flexibility.

"It's good for variety. It's also good for the mind in helping to reduce your stress levels," says Dr. Frates.

When performing stretching exercises, be sure to listen to your body to avoid overstretching, which can lead to injury. A slight pull in the muscle is okay, but stop if you feel a sudden or sharp pain.

Strength training

To keep your body and joints strong, you should also squeeze in some strength training at least two days a week, working the different muscle groups: your legs, your arms, and your back and core.

An easy way to do this at home is to use resistance bands. These are essentially oversized rubber bands that provide resistance to build your muscle strength. You can purchase them online or at a sporting goods store. Many video workouts using resistance bands are available to get you started, says Dr. Frates.

If you don't have resistance bands, you can use objects such as soup cans in lieu of weights, or choose exercises that use your own body weight to provide resistance.

You might also want to try Pilates, a low-impact, full-body strength workout that also helps to improve flexibility. Pilates is typically done using special equipment in a studio with a live instructor, but you can do it at home using a yoga mat and an online video.

Strengthening exercises not only protect your bone health, but also speed your metabolism and improve your balance. In addition, building stronger muscles helps to protect and stabilize your joints, which can prevent injury and ease discomfort, says Dr. Frates.

How to stay pumped about home workouts

It can be tough to stay motivated about a home workout routine. There's no one there to urge you on, and it can be tempting to just skip your daily session in favor of the couch.

Here are some strategies that can help you stay motivated, from Dr. Beth Frates, a lifestyle medicine specialist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Get a workout buddy. "One of the best ways to stay motivated is to find a friend who will work out with you either remotely or in person," says Dr. Frates. If you can't meet face-to-face (preferably outdoors), try videoconferencing. Or tune in to the same online yoga class and follow it together, from your separate homes.

Invest in a personal trainer. If you have the resources, consider hiring a personal trainer to work with you remotely or to design an exercise plan for you to follow. "If you can afford it, this provides terrific accountability," says Dr. Frates. You're less likely to skip a workout if you paid for a session with a trainer, who is waiting to work with you at a specified time.

Try an online class. Many exercise classes are now held virtually, says Dr. Frates. Research has found that people are much more likely to follow through with workouts when they're paying for them, so there are advantages to investing in a formal class. But if you prefer, there are many free classes online as well.

Stick to a schedule. Plan exercise into your week just as you would meetings or appointments. Blocking off time for a session makes it less likely to fall victim to a busy day.

Chart your progress. Even something as simple as a calendar you use to log your workouts can help keep you on track. "Set it up where it's visible and check off the days when you meet your goals, so you can see how you're doing," says Dr. Frates.

Have fun. Find activities that you enjoy; if you look forward to them, you're more likely to stick with them. Remember, moving doesn't only involve jogging or traditional workouts. Try something new, such as hula hooping, says Dr. Frates. Dancing or gardening qualifies as movement as well.

Add music. Any workout can be more fun with the addition of some upbeat music to get you in the mood. Put together a great playlist that will get you looking forward to exercising each day.

Image: © petesphotography/Getty Images

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.