“How are Americans navigating options for leisure during the COVID-19 crisis? How are they staying fit?” asks Bradley Baker. To gain a handle on those challenges and personal strategies, the McCormack Department assistant professor of sport management and six coauthors recently pooled their varied research approaches in the article “To Be or Not to Be: Negotiating Leisure Constraints with Technology and Data Analytics Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic.” The paper, recently published in the journal Leisure Studies, shares insights from original research and surveys that deploy social media and “big data,” including assessment via GPS phone tracking and devices like Fitbit.
The Covid crisis has complicated lifestyle choices, note Baker and his coauthors. Social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and other constraints have proved challenging, compelling trade-offs when people decide on options for active leisure. And increased sedentary behavior, indoor time, and isolation from peers can contribute to physiological and mental health issues.
“Our surveys of social media reveal that in spite of sharply reduced physical contact, people find ways to maintain active leisure with a social element,” Baker explains. “They continue to have constructive, meaningful exchanges with their peers.” Those findings emerged from text mining thousands of Instagram posts. (Example: in those exchanges, the phrase “quarantine workout” went viral.) Granted, social media is an imperfect substitute for traditional face-to-face interactions, but it can add value, the authors observe. Its sense of community counters feelings of isolation and loneliness. And in advocating exercise and other lifestyle positives, its participants can foster healthy, active choices, including structured workout plans.
“I frequently use social media when studying personal and team brand building,” notes Baker, whose research also explores sport consumer behavior and loyalty, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Baker’s latest paper, which will grace the premier publication Journal of Sport Management, examines how first-time volunteers come to identify with a nonprofit organization (an afternoon running program for at-risk youth). It fleshes out similarities and differences between newbies and returning volunteers.
Sorting an Abundance of Data
Social media has its limitations, observe Baker and his coauthors in “To Be or Not to Be.” Participants may “self-curate” their interactions in support of their own self-image and may tailor their responses in light of group norms. Social media research may also unintentionally bypass some communities and groups. Still, the approach offers a valuable complement to more objective approaches, including the article’s second study, which relies on Big Data/GPS cell phone tracking of leisure activities. “Many phone owners opt out of Google-based GPS tracking in general,” says Baker. “But millions don’t; that gives us the data we need.”
In their study, the researchers tracked the shifting frequency and duration of visits to parks (a favorite destination of Baker and his family) during the pandemic. That sort of information, they emphasize, can give policy makers a leg up in steering residents to park visits during lower-risk hours. Spatial tracking can also contribute to safer social distancing. And it can offer communities straightforward, real-time assessments of health risks at parks and other public spaces.
Big Data, observes Baker, also goes hand in glove with “smart technologies,” including fitness wearables like Fitbit products, interactive workout equipment, and “smart” clothing. These items allow the user to monitor their activity and performance against personal goals. Fitbit data, in fact, suggest that people are lounging more, with overall steps down 12 percent during the pandemic. In response, the newest Apple Watch and Fitbit wrist bands are tracking time spent sitting, standing, and exercising intensively.
“All of these studies and approaches shed light from different angles, different perspectives,” observes Baker. Collectively, they improve our overall understanding.” Leisure Studies agrees. “To Be or Not to Be” enjoyed unusual fast-tracking to publication: Its prepublication reviews turned around in 3 to 4 months and it ran in the journal a month later. Just like vaccines, a premium on timeliness prevailed.