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Impact of COVID lockdown on physical activity and physical activity research.

Pre-coronavirus physical inactivity, was estimated by Public Health England to be responsible for 1 in 6 deaths in the UK, making it as deadly as smoking. Conversely achieving physical activity guidelines (of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week) is recommended as a protective action against poor coronavirus outcomes. Owing to physical activity both supporting and regulating your immune response, as well as having a protective role against many of the non-communicable risk factors for COVID-19, such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. More generally, being active during the lockdown period has many wider physical and mental health benefits. Indeed, the UK media has portrayed images of an active lockdown with photos of increased active travel, crowded parks and mass online PE lessons. Suggesting lockdown has created a more active nation. With quieter roads, more free time, and acute incentive to be more active, is lockdown the magic bullet to tackle physical inactivity in the UK? 

Over the first two months of lockdown Sports England conducted a weekly survey investigating individual’s activity behaviours and attitudes during lockdown. Of representatively sampled adults surveyed in the first week of lockdown 31% reported doing more activity compared to normal, whilst 41% reported doing less than usual. Whilst this gap does marginally narrow by the end of May a large disparity remains. Indicating that unfortunately, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, physical activity levels are not immune from the inequality widening effects of the pandemic. Looking at the groups struggling to be active, women, those of a non-white ethnicity, older adults and those from poorer socioeconomic group are all more likely to report not meeting physical activity guidelines or being less active than before. These are all demographic factors that have been previously identified as barriers to achieving physical activity guidelines but now are further amplified by the lockdown. However, the lockdown has also brought new obstacles to being active in terms of living situation. Identified by the same survey living alone, not having children and not having access to private outdoor space are all fairly significant barriers to being active. Highlighting the roles social and spatial factors play in determining physical activity behaviours.

Generally, my research is centred around looking at how fitness and lifestyle smartphone apps can be used to capture physical activity levels and location. Smartphone apps have an invaluable role to play in looking at the activity behaviours pre, during and post-lockdown. For instance, by utilising smartphone GPS, we can see how individual’s activity spaces: the space in which an individual interacts with their environment, changes as lockdown is enforced and slowly lifts. In terms of policy and investment in physical activity initiatives it is important to understand whether physical activity locations shift back to their pre-lockdown state, or whether we continue to be more active in and from home. If used in a timely manner these data can also be used to inform the sites of temporary active travel infrastructure, such as bike lanes, with the view to making them permanent.

Whilst to date there is currently limited data publicly available from smartphone apps for the lockdown period there is data available on app usage. EE have reported that smartphone data usage has increased three-fold for Strava in contrast to pre-lockdown levels, whilst Fitbit data usage has significantly dropped. The key difference in these apps is the competitive fitness (Strava) versus health and wellbeing (Fitbit) focus. Indicating that whilst lockdown is perhaps providing more opportunity to advertently engaging in exercise, there is less opportunity for passive activity associated with ‘usual’ everyday behaviours, such as commuting. In addition, with many people working from home, there is also an increase in time spent sedentary. Fitness versus wellness app focus is also reflected in app usership, with Strava having a typically young and male users whilst the Fitbit usership is predominantly female. Suggesting app usage is also reflecting the gender inequality observed by the Sports England survey.

Research utilising smartphones to gain a representative image of population physical activity behaviours is in its infancy. Considerations into who is and is not captured by these data, data security and ethics all play a major role in the future utilisation of health and fitness apps as rich physical activity data sources. Many of the same considerations and concerns are present in the proposed track and trace apps, which have the potential to make or break public trust in any future app-based health research.

Lockdown has the potential to be a turning point in tackling physical inactivity. With 64% of the Sports England survey respondents reporting they feel it is more important to be physically active now than before (compared to just 4% who feel it is less important). There is an increased public interest in becoming more active. Physical activity behavioural changes during lockdown may also provide the key to identifying some of the barriers to being physically active which are not so easily identified in ‘normal’ circumstances. However, lockdown also introduces many barriers of its own to physical activity. Moving forward we have the opportunity to change the environment in which we live to be more supportive of physical activity in the future.

Sport England full report (it is worth a read)