The COVID-19 lockdown has dramatically altered our personal habits, and not in a good way, a first-of-its-kind global survey reveals. The findings showed our mental health, sleep patterns, exercise routines, and eating habits were strongly disrupted by social isolation and lockdowns.
In response to the global outbreak, a wave of quarantine and stay-at-home mandates have been issued to attenuate the spread of the virus. While they were successful in stopping the spread of the virus, they affected society in other ways.
Anecdotally, it seems clear that the lockdown has taken a toll. The closures of offices, fitness centers, and restaurants have disrupted our dietary and physical activities. Meanwhile, social isolation has severe impacts on mental wellness. Stress is associated with sleep disruption, increased snacking, unhealthier food consumption — which often results in weight gain, which cascades into other health problems.
But there’s a difference between anecdotes and strong evidence. To assess the widespread impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on health behaviors, the aim of the study was to quantify changes in habitual dietary behaviors, physical activity, sleep, sedentary behaviors, and mental health before and during the initial peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers surveyed over 7,000 people from over 50 countries.
“The stay-at-home orders did result in one major health positive. Overall, healthy eating increased because we ate out less frequently. However, we snacked more. We got less exercise. We went to bed later and slept more poorly. Our anxiety levels doubled,” said Leanne Redman, one of the authors of the study.
Eating behaviors were significantly changed with COVID-19. Eating meals from restaurants and consuming pre-prepared food declined from 1.98 times per week to 1.08 times per week. Meanwhile, cooking meals at home increased from 4.49 to 5.18 days per week.
It wasn’t all bad, there were some good changes. Some of the positive reported eating behavior changes included less frequency of breakfast skipping, eating four or more meals at a restaurant and two or more meals from fast food, and an increased frequency of eating fruit. Meanwhile, reported negative changes included a larger consumption of sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages.
There were no reported differences in vegetable intake from before to during the pandemic. An increase in healthy snacking was reported by 25.8% of participants, whereas 43.5% reported an increase in unhealthy snacking. Overall, 20.7% perceived they were eating healthier and 35.6% reported eating less healthy.
The shift towards unhealthy eating was accompanied by increases in sedentary behaviors, declines in physical activity, a later sleep onset time, and nearly twice the increase in reported anxiety compared to those eating healthier.
Changes to sleep quality varied, 43.8% reported worsened sleep quality while 10.2% reported improved sleep quality.
“This study is the first to survey thousands of people across the globe on lifestyle behavior changes in response to stay-at-home orders. The study demonstrates that chronic diseases like obesity affect our health beyond the physical,” said John Kirwan, Executive Director for Scientific Education at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
It’s concerning but unsurprising to see that society was disrupted by the quarantine measures. It should be noted that 7,000 people isn’t that big of a sample size for a global population, and further studies are required to clarify the extent of this disruption.
Moving on, few governments and health organizations recommend general lockdowns. Lockdowns should largely be used as ‘circuit breakers’, most guidance recommends — a brief and local intervention only when cases start to surge. Governments should weigh the positive impact of the lockdown in reducing viral transmission against the negative impacts. Unfortunately, however, with winter knocking on our door in the northern hemisphere and no end to the pandemic in sight, this is probably not the last we’ve heard of lockdowns.
The study was published in the journal Wiley.