Study: Healthy Behaviors Declined During COVID-19 Lockdowns

Two people wearing masks walking in the park.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that participants' healthy behaviors have declined during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • People are exercising less, drinking more, and eating fewer fruits and vegetables.
  • It's never too late to start caring for yourself by engaging in physical exercise and getting a good night's sleep.

After most of the world went into lockdown last March, many people were forced to change their lifestyle. If yours took a turn for the worse, you're not alone.

Researchers in the U.K. examined the effect lockdown protocols like social distancing and sheltering in place had on individuals' wellness. For the study, 1,044 people completed a baseline survey in April 2020 and then answered daily assessments for three months. Dietary, physical activity, alcohol, smoking, vaping, and substance use behaviors from the participants' pre-COVID-19 period were compared to surveys over the first 30 days of early lockdown.

Researchers found that in general, participants were exercising less, drinking more, and consuming fewer fruits and vegetables. And in general, women fared worse than men.

“We wanted to understand what impact the first U.K. lockdown had on people’s lifestyle behaviors and wellbeing,” one of the study’s authors, Felix Naughton, BSc, MSc, PhD, CPsychol, a behavioral and implementation science group researcher at the University of East Anglia in England, tells Verywell. The January study was published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

What This Means For You

If your healthy habits like exercising and eating healthy foods have declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, you're not alone. But it's never too late to start caring for yourself. Incorporate healthy habits into your day like getting enough sleep and taking breaks to unwind from stress and work.

Decline in Healthy Activities

Most shifts among the participants in key categories leaned toward a decline in healthy activities.

On average, there was a decline of almost one full serving of fruit and vegetables consumed per day. Participants who were younger, identified as female, and had higher BMIs tended to consume high sugar foods during lockdown.

“Our study showed that women were more disadvantaged by lockdown than men—women experienced greater reductions in their diet quality and increased their frequency of drinking alcohol during lockdown,” Naughton says. “There is evidence from other studies that women are more likely to increase their drinking due to COVID-19 related psychological distress than men, and it is possible that this might explain some of the changes in dietary behavior as well. Our finding that women were more likely to have increased their high sugar snack intake compared with men suggests that ‘comfort eating’ could have played a role.”

"A further interesting finding is that while on average the participants’ lifestyle behaviors worsened in lockdown, many people improved compared to pre-lockdown—so there seem to be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ when it comes to lockdown," Naughton says.

You can catch a glimpse of that trend when it comes to exercise. There was a 20% decline in days where participants engaged in 30 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity—but a 15% increase in strength training per week.

Researchers also found that groups at the greatest risk for COVID‐19 reduced their activity the most. Naughton says looking at these trends can show how some of these behaviors, like cutting down on exercise and healthy foods, can "affect our immune systems’ ability to fight infections from viruses like coronavirus."

The group is continuing their research in order to keep understanding how gender, age, and other factors may be impacting these behaviors. “We have been interviewing participants to better understand these changes,” Naughton says. “We have also been following up on our participants at three, six and soon 12 months since the first lockdown started, so we should learn how people’s health behaviors and wellbeing have changed over a longer period of time.”

How to Work on Healthy Habits

Amidst the intense stress many are experiencing during the pandemic, it's important to make time to care for yourself and your body.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares four tips to help care for yourself:

  • Take breaks to unwind through yoga, music, gardening, or new hobbies
  • Find new ways to safely connect with family and friends, get support, and share feelings
  • Take care of your body and get moving to lessen fatigue, anxiety, or sadness
  • Treat yourself to healthy foods and get enough sleep

Naughton suggests setting small goals about healthy eating and exercise for yourself.

“It is also important to review your goal(s) after a week or so and make it more realistic if things don’t go according to plan," Naughton says. "The key thing if you are struggling is not to try and change too much at once and remind yourself that any positive changes are an achievement and something you can build on.”

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.

2 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.
  1. Naughton F, Ward E, Khondoker M et al. Health behaviour change during the UK COVID‐19 lockdown: Findings from the first wave of the C‐19 health behaviour and well‐being daily tracker study. Br J Health Psychol. 2021;26(2):624-643. doi:10.1111/bjhp.12500

  2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Care for yourself.

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.