How the Pandemic Is Changing Our Diet and Exercise Habits, According to Research

Since the start of the pandemic has your lifestyle grown more or less healthy? I don’t know about you, but I know when I try to think through this question, the answer is complicated. 

Being stuck at home more means I cook more, which is probably a health win, but then I have to confess to enjoying more wine since this whole thing began too. I don’t go to the gym but I have started running more and squeezing in the odd online exercise class. My mental health is definitely down, but I am very fortunate to be able to say not dramatically. 

So do all these changes add up to a more or less healthy lifestyle? And am I typical? Are most of us reacting to work from home by cooking healthful meals and doing yoga, or binging on junk food and Netflix? Data is just starting to come in on these questions, and the answers are both fascinating and complex. 

Who’s exercising more during the pandemic? 

First, when it comes to exercise, there is reason to be hopeful that so many of us working from home could lead to more active lifestyles. Pre-pandemic surveys showed that remote workers got more exercise than their in-office counterparts, probably because they had more freedom in their schedule to squeeze in workouts. 

Some post-pandemic surveys show that effect. A recent poll from Morning Brew and Harris found 67 percent of respondents claim their lifestyle has become healthier since they started working from home. Another global poll from RunRepeat found that those who were active before the pandemic were even more active after it began. Sales of Peleton exercise bikes have been skyrocketing. And the media is peppered with first person accounts of people using Covid restrictions as an excuse to kickstart healthy new exercise habits. 

Many of these polls and stories, however, reflect self-reported behavior change, which can be unreliable. When British researchers crunched data on more than 5.000 people collected by a step counting app they found that movement, unsurprisingly, dropped during the UK’s first, strict lockdown. But even after restrictions were loosened, activity levels didn’t return to their pre-pandemic levels, except among older people who were back to their usual level of movement.  

More data is needed, but the overall picture so far is a mixed bag. While some groups, such as previously committed exercisers, those who can afford a nearly $2,000 exercise bike, and unencumbered older folks, seem to be using Covid restrictions as an opportunity to fit in more workouts. Others, including I’d imagine overwhelmed parents and workers under intense stress, don’t have energy to be anything but Covid couch potatoes. 

The great home cooking divide 

And how about what we’re eating? There’s no disagreement that we’re all cooking a whole lot more. The data is equally clear that this has to be at least a partial health win as the vast majority of restaurant food is far from healthy. On the other hand, exercise equipment isn’t the only sector seeing sales soar. Snack food sales are way up too. 

Those numbers point towards a harsh reality of at home eating: doing it in a healthy way is expensive. Many families are struggling to put any food, more or less healthy food, on the table right now. “It is more expensive to feed a family in this context,” sociologist Sinikka Elliott told Time, highlighting the lack of school lunches as one factor. 

As with exercise the question of whether you’re eating healthier these days very much depends on your situation. In both cases those who were doing all right before the pandemic are probably doing better now. Those who were already struggling are often struggling more. 

How’s your lifestyle faring? 

Taken together all of this paints a diverse picture. For some lucky segments of the population without acute stress and intense caring demands, fitness is actually a pandemic silver lining. Stuck at home, this group is finding more time to exercise and eat healthy. For those in more difficult situations, firing up the Peloton or planning healthy meals if far, far from top of mind. 

How about you: has your lifestyle become more or less healthy since the pandemic began?

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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