Impact of social restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic on the physical activity levels of older adults
Physical inactivity adversely affects older adults, with more than 60% of those aged over 75 years not sufficiently physically active for good health as defined by meeting the WHO and UK guidelines. From March until June 2020 in the UK, a national ‘lockdown’ was implemented to reduce exposure to, and transmission of, COVID-19. Although applied to the whole population, adults aged over 70 years and those with underlying health conditions at higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease were asked to follow more stringent social distancing measures. These included remaining at home where possible; avoiding social mixing in the community; avoiding physically interacting with friends and family; and avoiding public transport.
In a paper published in the journal BMJ Open, we examined self-reported physical activity before and after the introduction of lockdown, as measured by metabolic equivalent of task (MET) minutes. Associations of physical activity with demographic, lifestyle and social factors, mood and frailty were also examined. The study population comprised adults enrolled in the Cognitive Health in Ageing Register for Investigational and Observational Trials cohort from general practitioner practices in North West London from April to July 2020. 6219 cognitively healthy adults aged 50–92 years completed the survey.
Mean physical activity was significantly lower following the introduction of lockdown from 3519 to 3185 MET min/week (p<0.001). After adjustment for confounders and pre-lockdown physical activity, lower levels of physical activity after the introduction of lockdown were found in those who were over 85 years old (640 (95% CI 246 to 1034) MET min/week less); were divorced or single (240 (95% CI 120 to 360) MET min/week less); living alone (277 (95% CI 152 to 402) MET min/week less); reported feeling lonely often (306 (95% CI 60 to 552) MET min/week less); and showed symptoms of depression (1007 (95% CI 612 to 1401) MET min/week less) compared with those aged 50–64 years, married, cohabiting and not reporting loneliness or depression, respectively.
We concluded that markers of social isolation, loneliness and depression were associated with lower physical activity following the introduction of lockdown in the UK. Targeted interventions to increase physical activity in these groups are needed to limit adverse health outcomes from lower levels of exercise.