Researchers concerned by results of lockdown health and wellbeing study
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People’s health and wellbeing is one of the key areas of world-leading research that is undertaken at Norwich Research Park. And the impact of Covid-19 on people’s behaviours is the subject of a study just published by a team of researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) at Norwich Research Park.
The research - the first of its kind - looked at how lifestyle behaviours changed over the three months from April 2020, during the first national lockdown. More than 1,000 participants, predominantly from Norfolk, completed a daily survey answering questions on a range of lifestyle behaviours including physical activity, diet, sleep, smoking, drinking and drug use.
The study, co-led by Dr Felix Naughton of the School of Health Sciences and Prof Caitlin Notley of Norwich Medical School, was published in the British Journal of Health Psychology earlier this month.
The headline findings were quite alarming. People ate less fruit and veg, took less exercise and drank more alcohol. Young people, women, those who are overweight, and some of the people at greatest risk of Covid-19 demonstrated the unhealthiest behaviour changes.
Prof Notley said: “We wanted to track people’s health and lifestyle behaviours over the first lockdown period to help answer important questions about the overall impact the restrictions had on health.
“We focused primarily on people’s mental health and wellbeing, their level of exercise and their smoking and drinking habits. We know that drinking alcohol, smoking, poor diet and not doing enough exercise have a negative impact on people’s health and contribute to premature mortality. Health behaviours also affect mental health and the risk of chronic conditions and disease, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes.
“And, importantly, people could be more likely to have a more severe Covid-19 infection if their behaviours are unhealthy.”
The study’s findings were split into reporting on behaviours relating to nutrition, exercise and the consumption of alcohol, smoking and drugs.
On the topic of nutrition, Dr Naughton commented: “We found that people were eating around one portion less fruit and veg every day than they were before the pandemic. Encouragingly, though, we didn’t see an increase in eating junk food."
With regard to the amount of exercise people took, Dr Naughton said: “We found that participants did significantly less moderate to vigorous physical activity. But interestingly people reported that they were doing a bit more strength training.
“Those groups most at risk of Covid-19 were the ones undertaking the least physical activity. Exercise helps improve the immune function, particularly among older people, so the fact that those who are most at risk of being severely affected by Covid-19 were doing the least exercise is a real concern. We recognise that social distancing and shielding can make exercise more difficult, so finding ways around this is important.”
Alcohol, smoking and drugs
The research found that, overall, people consumed more alcohol. Women tended to drink more frequently but men and key workers drank greater quantities during each drinking occasion. These findings are concerning because even relatively small increases in alcohol consumption can have a marked impact on long-term health.
The study did not show any changes in smoking, vaping or drug taking habits.
Prof Notley said: “Our findings indicate that, on average, people’s health behaviours worsened in the early stages of the pandemic measures. It is critical now that we reflect on these effects so that we can advise people of how best to protect their health during the current lockdown.
“If short-term changes turn into longer-term habits, people’s health could be compromised. Changes in behaviours may also become more entrenched with more restrictions in place. Overall, it seems to be that worsening unhealthy behaviours were associated with being younger, female and having a higher BMI.
“As younger people in general displayed more unhealthy changes than older people, the net impact on health outcomes of any long-term changes in habit would be greater as younger people have more years ahead of them.”
Individuals with a higher BMI had a worsening of dietary behaviours and a reduction in physical activity. The fact that people with higher BMI showed more unhealthy behaviours is concerning because excess body weight is associated with a more severe Covid-19 prognosis.
“Worryingly, we also found that some of the people at greatest risk of Covid-19 had demonstrated the unhealthiest behaviour changes,” added Prof Notley.
“Although these findings are concerning, it is important that people realise that even small changes can impact positively on their long-term health. For example, eating less sugary snacks, drinking less alcohol or exercising a little every day could really improve their health over the longer term and could also have a positive impact on their ability to recover from Covid-19, if infected."
The research team will continue to monitor the longer-term changes and hope their findings will help inform decision making about current and future pandemic responses.
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