Findings from a Cambridgeshire study published in the journal Public Health show that diet quality and physical activity levels fell substantially during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels. The fall was greatest in those living in less affluent areas.
If these behaviour changes persist, this could have a considerable impact on widening inequalities, with those in the poorest areas more vulnerable to worse longer-term health as a result.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed clear inequalities in the UK, with people with existing health conditions and living in the poorest areas of the country more likely to die from COVID-19 than the wealthiest. Furthermore, the pandemic and related restrictions also had an impact on everyday life including how active people were, their diets, alcohol consumption, sleep and smoking.
Using data from the Fenland Study and the Fenland COVID-19 Study, researchers were able to compare measures of these behaviours taken on two occasions in the years before the pandemic (2005-2020) with the same measures taken during the pandemic on three occasions (2020-2021). The research team found that, in particular, levels of physical activity and fruit and vegetable consumption decreased during the pandemic period. This decrease was much larger among participants living in poorer areas of Cambridgeshire compared to those living in more affluent areas. It was also greater in women compared to men. Differences by age were also noticeable with those over 60 years old having greater decreases in home-, leisure- and work-based physical activity compared to younger age groups.
This analysis shows that the pandemic has widened inequalities in health behaviours, and supports the need for strategies to improve diet and physical activity equitably in the UK population.
- Braithwaite VS, Sharp SJ, Koulman A, Wareham NJ, Rennie KL. An investigation of factors affecting changes in health behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic in a UK population-based cohort study, Public Health, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2022.08.005