How activity levels are changing under COVID-19

Date: 24/04/2020 Written by: Daisy 5 minutes to read.
Human behaviour

New research by Sport England has indicated that our physical activity levels are changing during the coronavirus crisis and under lockdown. In this blog, we use this research to explore both increasing and decreasing activity levels and the reasons behind these changes.

The impact of the current coronavirus crisis and nationwide lockdown goes beyond the virus itself - it is having an impact on a wide range of social issues (see how here), both for the good and the bad. Our physical activity levels (i.e. inactive, fairly active and active) is one such issue where the impact of coronavirus and the lockdown is not clear cut. Whilst some groups are engaging in activity more and thereby increasing their physical activity levels, the opposite is true for other groups.

So, to what extent are physical activity levels increasing or decreasing, and why?

Increases in physical activity

In the new research published by Sport England, a third of adults did more physical activity in the week of taking part in this survey than they had before lockdown measures. In addition to this, respondents who had cycled, ran/jogged, or done activities at home were more likely to have done this more than usual than less or the same as usual. This indicates that many adults are using the coronavirus lockdown as an opportunity to be more active, thereby increasing their physical activity levels and moving from inactive to fairly active, active or even ‘super active’ (a new category perhaps?).

I won’t list the endless benefits to physical and mental health that being active provides, and it is great to know that people are taking steps to improve their health. However, the psychologist in me wonders: why now?

Why now?

It won’t surprise you to hear that COVID-19 is the likely contributor. Sport England’s research showed that nearly two-thirds of adults think it’s more important to be active during COVID-19 than at other times. In addition to this, 71% and 67% think that exercising is helping their physical and mental health respectively. These figures raise one important question: are we seeing a shift towards more health-focused behaviours?

The likely answer: yes. Maybe when coronavirus first appeared, people were able to label it as “something distant that won’t affect me”, but not anymore. Coronavirus is here, it is salient and relevant to people across the world, and therefore it cannot be ignored. People who weren’t previously concerned about their physical or mental health may not have seen the need to take action to support these. However, now that coronavirus and lockdown measures pose a real and timely risk to both physical and mental health, they are using exercise as a way to get and stay both physically and mentally healthy.

So, why now? Because ‘physical health’ and ‘mental health’ have suddenly become more relevant to all of us. We are all seeing and hearing about, and even experiencing ourselves, the detrimental effects to these during the coronavirus crisis and lockdown. This, in turn, leads us to do what we can to protect ourselves. First, there was stockpiling, and now there is physical activity. What next?

Decreases in physical activity

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to use the lockdown period as an opportunity to be more active. Just over a third of people who engaged with Sport England’s research said they did less physical activity than usual in the week of taking the survey.

But why? Don’t current lockdown measures provide the perfect opportunity for being more active? 66% of people agreed that they now have more time to be physically active than previously, and there are plenty of home-based activities and green spaces for everyone to utilise, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, social issues have a tendency to have a bigger impact on the most vulnerable and less affluent, and declining activity levels is no different.

Why are some levels declining?

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why some people are being less active than usual. But, what we do know is that over half of respondents said that they worry about leaving their home to exercise. This fear of leaving the home is likely linked to the reasons for lockdown measures; to avoid social contact and reduce the spread of (and risk of catching) coronavirus. So perhaps this is another approach taken by people who have become more health-conscious, in that they don’t want to risk leaving their homes to exercise in an attempt to shield themselves from possible infection. What we also know is that decreasing activity levels were particularly prominent in those who were older, on low incomes, living in urban areas or living alone. People in these groups are finding it harder to be active during the coronavirus crisis.

These vulnerable and less affluent groups have fewer opportunities than their counterparts. Sufficient green and indoor spaces may not be readily available and they are at a higher risk of having poor physical and mental health, meaning they may be more likely to be among those following the strictest isolation guidelines to stay at home. This, unfortunately, tells us that there is a huge group of people whose ability to be active is negatively impacted by lockdown, thereby actually putting them at increased risk of declining physical and mental health during and after the coronavirus crisis.

 

So what does this tell us about physical activity levels during coronavirus? Yes, there are those who are using this time to improve their health, be more active and who are utilising the green and indoor spaces readily available. However, vulnerable and less affluent groups are struggling, and so are likely to be the biggest victims of declining physical and mental health during this time. They may want to improve their health and get or stay active but are simply missing the opportunities to do so. The effects are likely to stretch across the coronavirus lockdown period and beyond, and so communities and policymakers need to consider the steps they can take to support the health and wellbeing of these groups now and into the future, at a safe distance of course. 

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