"This was such a drastic and abrupt change in everyone's daily life that we had to see what was going on," said Dr. Flanagan. "We wanted to include some data on the anecdotal behaviors we saw."
From April to the beginning of May around 7,750 people, most of them from the USA, but also from countries such as Canada, Australia and Great Britain, took part in the survey. The average age of the respondents was 51 years, the majority were women. Based on their body mass indexes, about a third of the people were overweight, a third were obese, and a third were considered normal weight.
The researchers found that most people became more sedentary, likely related to less daily commute and more time indoors. But even when people did structured exercises, the intensity tended to be lower compared to before the pandemic. Many people also said they had given in to their cravings: for example, the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and other sugary snacks increased.
This could explain another finding: Around 27 percent of people said they gained weight after the initial bans went into effect. The number was even higher for those who were overweight: around 33 percent said they had gained weight, compared with 24.7 percent of those who were classified as normal weight. People who gained weight also had the biggest drops in physical activity.
There were some bright spots in the results. About 17 percent of the study population actually lost weight during the pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were more likely to be people who increased their physical activity and improved their diet. And although many people ate more junk food, they showed an increase in their “healthy eating scores,” a measure of their overall nutritional quality, which includes eating more fruit and less fried foods, for example. The researchers said the overall improvements in diet appeared to be due to the fact that the lockdowns led people to cook, bake, and prepare more food at home. Other recent surveys have also shown a sharp increase in home cooking and baking this year. Many people say they are discovering new ingredients and looking for ways to make healthier foods.
But social isolation can affect mental well-being, and that was evident in the results. On average, people reported significantly higher levels of anxiety. About 20 percent said their symptoms, such as experiencing anxiety and the inability to control or stop worrying, were severe enough to interfere with their daily activities. About 44 percent of people said their sleep also got worse during the pandemic. On average, people reported going to bed about an hour later than usual and waking up about an hour later than usual. Only 10 percent of people said their sleep had improved since the pandemic began.
The greatest peaks in anxiety occurred in overweight people. It was unclear exactly why, but one reason could have been concerns about the virus. The survey came at a time when studies were first showing that being overweight significantly increases the risk of hospitalization with Covid-19. "We don't have any data to support this, but our hypothesis is that there was a lot more fear for their own health," said Dr. Flanagan. "An increased fear of the virus would certainly increase their anxiety."