In light of the many changes in the development of physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, a team from the Faculty of Physiotherapy at CES University, a member institution of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) in Colombia, led and promoted the practice of physical activity among different sectors of the population, even amid the restrictions generated by the global health emergency.

In the context before the COVID-19 pandemic, Colombia, like other Latin American countries, was characterized by low physical activity levels, with a prevalence of physical activity at 54% reported by the Global Observatory of Physical Activity. Moreover, the people who practiced physical activity were, for the most part, motivated -or forced- by the need to commute to work or school, but not necessarily as a strategy to keep their good health.

According to the Guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in November 2020, individuals “should start by doing small amounts of physical activity, gradually increasing frequency, intensity, and duration.” “Doing some physical activity is better than doing none,” says the report. But with the pandemic, both physical inactivity and sedentary behavior increased significantly. 

“Every move counts, especially now as we manage the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must all move every day – safely and creatively,” commented WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus when the Guidelines were announced, less than a year after the pandemic started, and during times in which restrictions imposed in certain countries were often very strict.

As per data from the Observatory mentioned above, it is estimated that in 2020, just two years ago, the decrease in the prevalence of physical activity was more than 50% globally. This increased both the risk of diseases affecting physical and mental health and infection by the virus by negatively influencing the response capacity of the immune system. Therefore, the Faculty of Physiotherapy at CES University developed a concrete strategy to counter this.

Among the first actions taken was the generation of a review with practical recommendations to avoid physical deconditioning during confinement. A document was presented and shared with a summary of the benefits of physical activity and a list of easy-to-understand, implement, and remember suggestions that could be applied with essential resources available at home.

The emphasis was on the importance of incorporating activities that caused enjoyment so that they were sustainable while positively impacting peoples’ mental health. “The general public needed a simple explanation on how to stay active at home while allowing them to disconnect a little,” explained Andry Mera Mamián, physiotherapist and coordinator of the university research group KineCES, focused on physical activity and healthy lifestyles.

“Then, based on this guide, we generated a large number of assets for social media, and we were pleased to know that the message managed to reach many people, including our own families,” she added. Her team also translated into Spanish audiovisual material from WHO on physical exercise incorporated into rehabilitation processes in patients with COVID-19.

KineCES, the unit within the university aimed at reducing sedentary behavior and physical inactivity, managed an extensive media campaign and physical training assisted by technology. While, in principle, these were intended solely for university members, in fact, several hundred students from other universities and beyond also followed these initiatives.

“These activities were very well received and viewed on social media. In addition, they generated a larger impact as they were shared with hundreds of people outside our educational community,” commented Santiago Montoya Gonzalez, physiotherapist, and faculty member. As a result, technology-assisted wellness activities were developed to promote movement and mental health for faculty and students alike.

Sessions of breathing techniques, relaxation, dance, and physical exercise were also carried out, guided by personnel from outside the university, cultural groups from the institution, and students from KineCES. The team also partnered with the authorities of the City of Medellín to provide free training for health personnel. “We trained them to support processes in healthcare facilities,” expressed Professor Alejandra Mondragón Barrera, a physiotherapist.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the confinement experienced during the lockdown and other restrictions inspired the Faculty of Physiotherapy at CES University to increase the generation of open and accessible information to the academic community and the general public, thus strengthening the social appropriation of knowledge and highlighting the social responsibility of institutions of higher education, particularly during challenging circumstances.