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How Stay-at-Home Orders Are Affecting Our Health

Illustration of a dark-haired child in front of a bright TV screen at night.

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Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has led many countries to put stay-at-home orders in place.
  • A new study shows that stay-at-home orders have led to changes in health behaviors, such as a decrease in physical activity, reduced quality sleep, and increased anxiety.
  • While healthy eating behaviors have increased, more than 25% of the participants in the study reported gaining weight during the pandemic.

According to a new study, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have had a negative impact on health behaviors, including sleep quality, physical activity, weight maintenance, and consumption of sweets. 

The study, which was published in the journal Obesity in this fall, used data gathered in an online survey asking participants about their habits before and after COVID-19. Nearly 8,000 people took the survey.

“This study sheds light on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic way beyond contracting the virus,” Melissa Mitri, MS, RD, registered dietitian and owner of Melissa Mitri Nutrition, LLC, tells Verywell. She was not involved with the research. “There is a significant amount of stress and anxiety around the pandemic, and this is affecting the way we eat, our motivation to exercise, and our sleep quality. This highlights how the pandemic has changed our health habits, and in particular, the disproportionate levels of anxiety and weight gain in those who are already obese.”

The survey collected information across five domains: demographics and household information, sedentary behaviors, physical activity, diet, sleep, and mental health.

Overall, 20.7% of the participants perceived that they were eating healthier, though 35.6% reported eating less healthy. Of all the people in the sample, 27.3% reported gaining weight.

According to their responses, people who are obese demonstrated the greatest improvements to unhealthful dietary behaviors, but they also reported the largest declines in mental health and the highest incidence of weight gain after stay-at-home orders were put in place.

Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

There is a significant amount of stress and anxiety around the pandemic, and this is affecting the way we eat, our motivation to exercise, and our sleep quality.

— Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

In general, study subjects reported eating less pre-prepared or fried foods and eating more fruit, but also reported eating more sugar and sugary drinks. Respondents also said that they were skipping breakfast less often and cooking more food at home.

A large percentage of participants reported an increase in sedentary activities like TV watching, a decrease in physical activity, a decrease in sleep quality, and an increase in anxiety.

“It is without question the past 10 months have led to significant physical and emotional changes for many across the world,” Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CPT, a California-based registered dietitian and author of Instant Pot Cookbook For Dummies, tells Verywell. “While the results of this study are a start to showing the drastic impact COVID-19 has had on people all over the globe aside from just the immediate economic and emotional impact many have felt, I fear it's only scraping the surface.”

COVID-19 and Obesity

In addition to being a severe—sometimes deadly—disease in its own right, COVID-19 may also play a role in worsening non-communicable diseases that are a major threat to our health, like obesity. 

Many survey participants indicated an increase in behaviors associated with the development of obesity after the onset of the pandemic. For example, poor quality sleep can lead to increased hunger, decreased insulin sensitivity, and other factors that contribute to the connection between sleep loss and increased risk of obesity.

People who are considered to be overweight or obese have a weight that is higher than what is considered to be healthy in relation to their height. People in this weight category are at increased risk for certain chronic health conditions, including:  

People who are considered to be obese are at an increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness, as well as more likely to need hospitalization. People who are overweight might also have an increased risk of severe illness if they get the virus.

Staying Well While Staying Home

While it's especially easy to break healthy habits at home, there are some things that you can do to preserve your physical and mental health as we round out a year of the pandemic.

Making Dietary Changes

Lainey Younkin, MS, RD, LDN, a weight loss dietitian at Lainey Younkin Nutrition, says that one of the biggest struggles for her clients since they started working from home has been mindlessly snacking throughout the day and into the evening.

“While snacking isn't bad, if we're doing it mindlessly or stress eating every day, then those calories can add up and lead to weight gain over time," Younkin says. "It really comes down to two things: keeping hormones balanced for blood sugar control and managing your environment. If you're stressed and hungry, then it's a double whammy, so focus on what you can control.”

Younkin explains that for blood sugar control, people should make sure that their meals are balanced with protein, healthy carbohydrates (that are high fiber), and healthy fat. 

You can also make changes in your environment. Younkin suggests that you “get the junk out of the house” and that you “plate your food, sit down, and enjoy it without distractions.”

Getting Active and Managing Stress

When it comes to exercise, Younkin says that one of the easiest, most effective exercises that you can do—even during a pandemic—is walk. “A 150 to 180 pound person will burn about 100 calories per mile walked," she says. "One mile is about 2,000 steps, so if you aim for 10,000 steps per day that's five miles and about 500 calories burned."

Shaw suggests aiming for 30 minutes of exercising per day. If you need a quicker solution for manager stress, she advises taking three to five deep breaths when you feel your anxiety levels starting to rise.

What This Means For You

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic extend beyond the risk of contracting the virus. Changes to your lifestyle caused by stay-at-home orders may also play a role in the development of non-communicable diseases like obesity that can be a threat to your health and wellbeing.

There are some simple things you can do to take care of your body and mind as you continue to stay at home. Try to find ways to stay active, be mindful about what you eat, and practice stress management.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The health effects of overweight and obesity. Updated September 17, 2020. 

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Obesity, Race/ethnicity, and COVID-19. Updated October 28, 2020.