What Covid-19 did to our health behaviour. Some early insights

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It’s been over a year that we have experienced the massive impact of Covid-19 on our daily routines and behaviour. All this time confined during the pandemic shows some negative impact on our health behaviour, according to a number of studies recently published in Europe.

“Health behaviour” means those things we do which can affect our health – both positively and negatively. Looking across these research studies, these categories were used to compare pre-Covid levels with behaviour during Covid.

Sleep

  • People did not sleep worse – no change in quality of sleep
  • People tended to sleep more

Eating and drinking

  • No significant increase in consumption of high sugar foods
  • Slightly less fresh fruit and vegetables consumed
  • Increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic

Physical activity

  • On average daily physical activity decreased by about 20% - 40%.
  • Some studies focussing on younger people had rates of a 60% decline.
  • What kind of exercise? There was a significant decrease in cardiovascular exercise. This is understandable given the limitations on engaging in sports activities or even leaving your home. Interestingly one UK study found an increase in strength training, at least at the beginning of the pandemic.
  • Age? Younger adults had the highest declines in physical activity. Interestingly, those over 65 years of age showed less changes in exercise levels. They tended to keep a consistent level of activity. 

What were people doing instead of exercise? Less physical activity means people spend a lot more time sitting.

What happens when people spend more time sitting? There is a positive correlation between this and time spent on smartphones. The more people sit, the more likely they are to be on their phones.

Smartphone use

  • There was a significant increase in smartphone use reported during the time of lockdowns/restricted social contacts.
  • This came up in a number of studies across Europe . For example, a Spanish study found that younger people (mean age 22) increased their phone usage by up to 2 hours per day. In a Danish study there was a 185% increase measured.

Why the increase? The pandemic restrictions meant few chances to socialise with others. Understandably people increased virtual socialising through phone use. Practically this translated into spending more time using social media apps. It is also related to spending significant time on major news events (such as the unfolding pandemic). And possibly people used their phones as a way to distract themselves from this tough situation.

Will these patterns continue?

Overall the lockdown/ social restrictions have had some negative influences on people's health behaviour. When most of these restrictions begin to lift, a major external influence will be removed. With this I assume will come the return to more normal/common behaviour patterns. Some of the biggest behaviour changes - negative health behaviours - were seen with younger adults. Perhaps they will bounce back the most too. How much and how far is hard to say.

My interest is smartphone behaviour. An important question here is to what degree people will reduce their phone usage once Covid restrictions are lifted? The phones were great to help us keep in contact with others, to share our “isolated” lives. With restrictions lifting and the chances of direct social contact increasing, I wonder what we have learnt from this experience. Have people learnt to value real-life contact even more. How valuable it can be to be in the same room with someone, and be present. Or will we struggle to put down our phones?

Stay healthy,

Jason 

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