MONTREAL -- We’ve heard it countless times: stay home if you can.

That’s been good for fighting the spread of the coronavirus, but not so good for people’s health.

A new study has found that the number of steps people take on an average day has dropped by nearly 50 per cent.

"Not only are steps down, lots of people are gaining five to ten pounds,” said Dr. Steven Grover, a professor at McGill’s medical school.

“So it's a double-whammy,” he said. “If you're housebound, you're not getting a lot of exercise [and also] you're sitting in front of the television set watching the news and eating processed food to manage your stress level.”

In the end, it’s inevitable that people will gain weight, and from there “we expect all kinds of health problems,” he said.

In March, Grover and some colleagues realized something: they’d created a program for another reason that could help people now.

Called Family Fitness Mission, the online program was originally made for veterans to help them keep active.

“What we were trying to do was get veterans mobilized, and exercising more and eating healthier and managing their stress, and quite frankly those were all the things that the average person practicing social isolation needed,” said Grover.

The idea is that friends or families track their activity and stay healthy together.

One person who’s taken up the challenge says the group dynamic seems to be the magic ingredient.

“We're a group of ten girls, all over Canada,” said Hiba Jekki. “I like this—it's very competitive. We challenge each other.”

For most of the pandemic so far, she admitted, “I didn’t do anything, because we were all stuck at home.”

The program also has coaches: a dozen McGill med students. One said it’s also become part of her education, in that she can see exactly how people struggle to become more active.

"We learn that physical activity, being active, losing weight is beneficial to prevent a lot of health problems or to improve a patient's outcome,” said Kayleigh Beaveridge.

“Now we get to understand how hard it is for them to integrate into their lives and help them.”

Grover says exercise isn’t just important for weight, but for sleeping better and feeling less stressed. He says the program’s been shown to work. 

It’s available online and will be offered for at least a few more months, he said.