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People take a walk next to the St. Lawrence River on Christmas Eve in Montreal on Dec. 24.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

With the coming year once again shrouded in uncertainty, predicting fitness trends feels a bit like the task that faced weather forecasters such as Kenneth Arrow, a future Nobel Prize winner in economics, during the Second World War.

The forecasters knew their long-range predictions were no better than the flip of a coin, Arrow later recalled. But when they told their superiors, the response was, “The general is well aware that your forecasts are no good. However, they are required for planning purposes.”

In that spirit, here are four health and fitness themes that I expect to be big in 2022 – if events don’t derail them.

A focus on mental health

One of the glaringly obvious takeaways from the early pandemic lockdowns was that exercise is crucial to our mental health. Sure, researchers have known for years that physical activity is a potent antidepressant, but now we’ve all felt it.

The past year has brought some unexpected plot twists, though. Athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles both withdrew from high-profile competitions to protect their mental health. And it’s not just the elite at risk: A recent study, for example, linked perfectionist mindsets to the risk of burnout among athletes of various competitive levels.

Don’t get me wrong: Physical activity remains a crucial tool for promoting mental health. But as more athletes speak openly about their struggles to find balance, expect a more nuanced societal discussion – and more scientific research – about the ways that exercise, and competitive sport in particular, can both promote and challenge mental health.

Combating health misinformation

Anti-vaccine myths existed long before COVID-19, along with a constellation of other pseudoscientific health beliefs such as homeopathy. Most of us had the luxury of ignoring them.

That’s no longer the case, and efforts to combat misinformation have become louder and better organized thanks to groups including Science Up First, a debunking initiative that brings together researchers, health care experts and science communicators. They’re currently focused on COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation, but their work won’t be done when the pandemic ends.

Take a stroll down the wellness aisles of even the most mainstream pharmacy, for example. You’ll see plenty of supplements and herbal remedies whose benefits are no more backed by science than the much mocked anti-COVID horse dewormer, ivermectin. Science advocates such as the University of Alberta’s Tim Caulfield have long railed against the supplement industry’s evidence-free claims; now that we’ve seen the consequences of misinformation, maybe we’ll start listening.

Leaning in to the power of nature

In 2019, British researchers crunched leisure and health data from 20,000 people and concluded that those who spent at least two hours a week in “green” areas such as parks, beaches and woodlands were measurably healthier than those who accumulated less time in such places.

The idea that exposure to nature is good for body and soul has been around for millennia, and science is now confirming it. Cumulative time in nature has been linked to stress levels, mood, immune function and even the risk of conditions including heart disease and cancer. Organizations such as PaRx – ”Canada’s first national, evidence-based nature prescription program” – are encouraging doctors to prescribe nature to their patients.

The next step is figuring out to which ingredients we respond most powerfully. Is it trees? The sound of water? The absence of traffic? Or something else that we haven’t even considered? Those are the types of questions being tackled by researchers, using new tools such as the NatureDose app that tracks your personal exposure to different types of nature.

Gyms could make a comeback?

Picture this: a big room filled with exercise equipment, of a quality, quantity and variety that you could never afford to install at home. The bustling energy of other people working out nearby. Experts on hand to offer guidance when needed. And you can drop by any time you want, all for a modest monthly fee.

Could this radical idea catch on in 2022? All the hype lately has been about the convenience of home exercise equipment and the surprising effectiveness of virtual trainers. But there are indications that at least some people are yearning for a bricks-and-mortar alternative. Peloton’s stock, for example, is down more than 75 per cent from its mid-pandemic high.

The public-health situation will play a big part in determining whether this prediction pans out. So maybe the best resolution for 2022 is simply to make time in your life for physical activity – at home, in a gym, out in nature, or wherever the circumstances permit.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.

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