Due to COVID-19, pilot communities are adapting their campaigns to help people stay safe while they get active. This series will highlight local events and initiatives from the community pilot program — including creative ways to promote physical activity during social distancing.
In this installment, we’re gathering lessons learned across the pilot communities during the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic — and highlighting strategies that other community organizations can use in these challenging times.
Facing New Challenges in the Time of COVID-19
This year’s Move Your Way pilot communities spent months planning live launch events and building campaign strategies that often hinged on bringing people together in person. But as communities responded to COVID-19, it became clear that stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines would take traditional in-person programming off the table.
As pilot communities rushed to move their events and programs online, the pandemic’s broader effects made this transition more difficult. In some communities, staff furloughs and reduced hours strained internal capacity. Other communities had to pause physical activity initiatives to focus on their COVID-19 response. And across the board, communities had to adapt their outreach efforts to address safety concerns.
Despite the odds, pilot communities rose to these challenges and successfully re-envisioned what community physical activity campaigns could look like. They learned to turn limitations into opportunities and to meet people where they are — especially when those people are stuck at home.
Turning Screen Time into a Strength
Screen time is often cited as a barrier to physical activity. But pilot communities found that moving programs online can be a big win for both accessibility and engagement.
Some communities saw fewer barriers around transportation, scheduling, and disability access when their events moved online. Several pilot organizations — including Chicago Parks Department in Illinois and Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia — found success with online fitness classes, and plan to continue these initiatives even after social distancing is over.
Other organizations, like Active Southern West Virginia and Walk Cabarrus in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, made their run clubs and 5K races virtual. They invited people to walk or run separately and log their steps online, allowing everyone to participate in their own neighborhoods and at their own pace. Social media outreach on Facebook and other platforms helped participants feel like they were still getting active together.
Scott Ulrich, Program Director for Healthy Places at Columbus Public Health in Ohio, says the online format helps reinforce the message that it doesn’t matter where or how you get active. “COVID-19 has shined a light on the fact that maybe we were over-reliant on in-person events,” says Ulrich. “We need to get better at meeting people where they are — which is really the message of Move Your Way.”
Embracing the Great Outdoors
While people are spending more time inside their homes during COVID-19, communities have also noticed increased enthusiasm for outdoor activity options. Many pilot organizations have responded to social distancing requirements by highlighting parks and trails where people can spread out while getting active.
And they’re finding creative ways to make the outdoors even more engaging. After an in-person launch in February, Siouxland District Health Department in Sioux City, Iowa, pivoted to socially distant activities with a scavenger hunt along their local trail system. Participants searched for signs planted along the trails and posted selfies with the signs on social media for a chance to win prizes.
Laura Steele, Education Director at BikeWalkKC in Kansas City, Missouri, says the Move Your Way campaign — with its emphasis on walking — is a great fit for the current moment. “The pandemic is helping us look at active living a little differently and appreciate the opportunities we still have to be active,” Steele says.
Keeping People Engaged Through Competition
Communities also needed strategies to translate the sense of togetherness and excitement from in-person events into the online environment. Friendly competition and prize giveaways emerged as winning ways to boost virtual engagement.
Walk Cabarrus posted virtual step counts online so participants could compete with their friends and neighbors, while Active Southern West Virginia encouraged participants to track their progress with an app and gave out participation prizes.
Live Well Streator in Streator, Illinois held a social media competition to get the word out about their campaign. They invited local businesses and schools to post photos and videos showing how their employees and students get active — and offered cash prizes for posts with the most likes.
Partnering for In-Person Impact
Even with increased online engagement, pilot communities were eager to find more direct ways to reach people in real life. Many relied on partnerships to coordinate efforts and avoid additional in-person contact during the pandemic.
For example, Siouxland District Health Department worked with partners to send “camp-in-a-box” packages to kids when summer camps closed. Would-be campers received Move Your Way educational materials — along with activity ideas, frisbees, and water bottles — to help them stay active at home.
And with so many families experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic, pilot communities saw food banks and free meal distribution sites as ideal partnership opportunities. Communities worked with local food distribution sites to give out Move Your Way fact sheets as part of free food packages and bagged lunches.
Some even found ways to help people get active at the food distribution sites. Active Southern West Virginia worked with a feeding site to design a no-touch obstacle course. Melanie Seiler, Executive Director of Active Southern West Virginia, says the course helps kids get active and have some fun while their families are picking up food. “We’re seamlessly pairing physical activity with the food and nutrition info they’re coming for in the first place,” she says.
Looking Ahead to a Healthy, Active Future
With the local Move Your Way campaigns continuing through the end of October, pilot communities will keep finding new strategies to promote activity during COVID-19. One key takeaway so far is that physical activity campaigns are not only possible during this challenging time — they’re more vital than ever.
Michelle Lewis, Health Promotion and Planning Coordinator at Siouxland District Health Department, says innovative public health efforts are proving that communities can stay healthy and active during social distancing. “We don’t all have to be in the same room to share the message,” she says.