Changed habits: exercise and sport during the pandemic

How did the lockdown affect our sporting and exercising activities? The answer differs from country to country. A GDI study has the details and explains why people react differently to a crisis.

The following text is an excerpt from the GDI study «Prevention in Transition», that can be ordered on our website.

Taking exercise and doing sports saw a great disruption as a result of the pandemic. It is not surprising that people take less exercise when they are told to stay at home. Accordingly, most studies found a reduction in physical exercise. But the results of the studies are not all the same. This is due, on the one hand, to lockdown regulations differing between countries (in Paris, during the first 2020 lockdown, jogging was not allowed between 10 am and 7 pm); on the other hand, the surveys were about different types of exercises (e.g., sports or going for a walk). On average, however, the studies in the following figure found that of any five people, one person took more exercise, two about the same, and two less exercise than before the pandemic.

Change in physical activity during the pandemic
Change in physical activity during the pandemic, source: GDI Research 2021

Thus, lockdown did not condemn everyone to inactivity to the same extent – including in countries with strict rules for avoiding contact. It is true that, with the closure of gyms and football clubs (at least in the amateur and youth sectors), certain opportunities for doing sports were no longer available. But some people found other ways to compensate for this. This is symbolised by the increase in Google searches for terms such as ‘running shoes’ or ‘yoga mat’ at the beginning of lockdown at the end of March 2020 (see fig.).

Undoubtedly, the different results of the studies have something to do with different circumstances in the countries concerned. But they may also be an effect of the timing of the surveys. For behaviours during the pandemic are by no means uniform. Much depends on when ‘during the pandemic’ surveys are conducted.

This is supported by studies with several measurement dates during the pandemic. Thus, a survey by Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz [Health Promotion Switzerland] shows that one month after so-called ‘lockdown’ (which in Switzerland did not include a mandate to stay at home), 49% of respondents took less exercise. Two months after ‘lockdown’, this figure had dropped to 29%. It seems that it takes time to establish new habits, or resume old habits, in a new context.

Frequency of the Google search terms "running shoes" (Joggingschuhe) and "yoga mat" (Yogamatte) in Germany over time
Frequency of the Google search terms "running shoes" (Joggingschuhe) and "yoga mat" (Yogamatte) in Germany over time, source: GDI Research 2021

A similar pattern is shown in other studies having several measurement dates. Three such studies – one from Germany, one from Spain, and one from Thailand – investigated how many people took enough exercise according to the WHO (the equivalent of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week) during the pandemic. All three studies found an initial decrease and thereafter a renewed increase in exercise. The European studies, each with three measurement points during the pandemic (the Thai study had two), even found that at the last measurement date, more people met the WHO recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week than before the pandemic (see fig.).

Who responds in what way? Factors promoting behavioural resilience

If a disruption can trigger both positive and negative behavioural change, this raises the question who responds in what way. Who gives up jogging? Who takes it up? Who compensates for missing football practice? Who ‘lets themselves go’? If we understand the reasons for different behavioural changes, prevention measures may be derived from them. The GDI study “Prevention in Transition”, lists several factors that have an impact on the resilience of health behaviours.

Proportions of respondents taking enough exercise according to the WHO
Proportions of respondents taking enough exercise according to the WHO