Documenting a Dramatic Stillness in the Pandemic

Still Life in Front of the WindowAs life comes back to a new sort of normalcy in some parts of the world, we are slowly coming to terms with the full effects of the pandemic. The deaths have been front and center – 3.5 million to date. Though that number is still growing in many places, it is slowing in others. So now we have time to think about the longer-term effects. Not just long COVID, but the effects of the dramatic stillness our response to the pandemic brought.

New research tells us that all around the world, physical activity dropped like a rock. And as active lives came to a screeching halt, something else dropped – mental well-being.

The Sudden Stillness

Jan Wilke and colleagues documented a pandemic of inactivity within the pandemic of COVID-19. Their study surveyed people in 14 countries, collecting self reports of physical activity before and during pandemic restrictions.

What they found was a dramatic 41 percent decline in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Vigorous physical activity dropped by 42 percent. The biggest drops came in occupational activity, previously active persons, young persons, and older persons.

Ripple Effects

This sudden stillness has consequences for both physical and mental health. In parallel with their first study, Wilke et al also documented drastic reductions in mental well-being in the same 14 countries during the first wave of the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, 14 percent of their sample met screening criteria for depression. During the lockdown, this tripled to 45 percent. Those increases correlated with being more active before the pandemic and with decreases in vigorous activity during the lockdown. Another factor was working outside the home during the pandemic.

This will likely have further effects on physical health, say the authors:

“We know that physical inactivity, especially in older people, can lead to changes that are difficult to reverse after only two weeks – for example, in body fat percentage or insulin sensitivity.”

Already, evidence is surfacing to confirm some of these effects from the dramatic stillness brought by the pandemic. Objective data from health systems in Philadelphia and midwestern America tell us that real upticks in child obesity prevalence is one consequence. Casual talk about COVD-related weight gain has been noxious, but the reality is likely to be that this phenomenon is real and will have real effects on physical health.

No doubt, we will be seeing ripple effects on physical and mental health from the pandemic for some time to come.

Click here for the study of physical activity and here for the study of mental well-being. For more perspective from the researchers, click here.

Still Life in Front of the Window, painting by Juan Gris / WikiArt

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June 2, 2021