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18 Aug 2020

Study: fitness 'must be included' in future pandemic planning
BY Tom Walker

Researchers said a drop in physical activity levels could have 'significant and long-term implications for physical and mental health'

Researchers said a drop in physical activity levels could have 'significant and long-term implications for physical and mental health'
photo: Shutterstock.com/Oleksandr Zamuruiev

Ensuring physical activity levels do not fall significantly should be treated as a "public health priority" in response to any future pandemics – as well as during crisis planning for a possible second wave of a COVID-19.

A new study, which shows a decrease in physical activity due to COVID-19, offers insight into how crucial it is for exercise to be included in future pandemic guidelines.

The research, conducted by a team at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, shows that while all physical activity declined following declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity rebounded over the first six weeks of the pandemic.

However, lighter and more incidental physical activity did not – which researchers said could have "significant and long-term implications for physical and mental health".

"Light physical activity – which might include walking from transit to the office, for example – remained depressed after six weeks," said Katie Di Sebastiano, a postdoctoral fellow in kinesiology and lead author of the study.

"Traditionally we've always focused on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, but more recent evidence shows that light physical activity can have some of the same benefits to physical and mental health.

"That's a significant amount of activity that people in the study were no longer getting."

For the study – titled Don’t Walk So Close to Me: Physical Distancing and Adult Physical Activity in Canada – the researchers analysed data from an app connected to smartphones and wearable devices of 23,173 Canadians.

The final study was based on 2,338 app users (10.1 per cent of the total sample), who had logged in enough times to provide complete datasets.

While many other studies charting levels of physical activity during the pandemic have relied on people’s recollection – and their personal interpretation of intensity – the UBC researchers could access objective data on heart rate and speed of steps through the PAC app, developed by the non-profit group ParticipACTION.

The UBC team wanted to see how people’s physical activity changed, from four weeks before the pandemic was declared (11 March) to six weeks afterward.

After examining the data, the team found that all levels of physical activity declined between 9 and 12.6 per cent shortly after physical distancing was introduced.

Only moderate-to-vigorous physical activity "bounced back", while less-intense activity remained suppressed.

"These results really highlight the need to consider physical activity when we're creating public health guidelines for a second wave of infections, or for future pandemics," Di Sebastiano said.

"In particular, our findings demonstrate the necessity for public health measures that provide extra space for everyone to engage in incidental activity through walking or cycling, for example."

To download and read the full Don’t Walk So Close to Me: Physical Distancing and Adult Physical Activity in Canada report, published in Frontiers of Psychology, click here.



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