Most Canadians had better lifestyle habits during pandemic

Six out of ten Canadians report that their lifestyle remained stable or improved during the pandemic, according to a new study, particularly with regard to their diet and level of physical activity.

On the other hand, four out of ten Canadians saw their habits deteriorate during the health crisis. Among the risk factors identified, dissatisfaction with body image increased the risk of adopting poorer lifestyle habits during the crisis almost ninefold; depression and increased stress levels were also blamed.

“Our study has provided us with information to help target people who are at risk of having deteriorating habits,” said the study’s lead author, researcher Anne-Julie Tessier, who completed this work as part of her doctoral studies at McGill University and is now pursuing post-doctoral studies at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Subsequently, it’s going to be important to prevent if there’s ever another similar situation that arises,” she said.

The researchers studied 1609 participants between May and December 2020. Subjects came from all age groups and all regions of Canada.

Sixty percent of participants reported increased levels of physical activity, stable or improved eating habits, and unchanged weight, sleep quality and smoking. The researchers point out, however, that the members of this group were more physically active at the start of the study, which could explain what was observed later.

The other group, whose lifestyle habits deteriorated, showed poorer quality of diet and sleep, reduced levels of physical activity and weight gain.

It’s hard to understand why some saw their physical activity levels increase or their diet improve during the pandemic, while others went in the exact opposite direction.

“What was striking was really that each individual, depending on a bunch of factors specific to them, is what’s going to determine the path or change in lifestyle habits in a crisis situation, like a pandemic,” said Tessier. “So, we can’t know exactly how a person will react.”

Teleworking seems to have encouraged some Canadians to prepare more of their own food and avoid eating out. But at the same time, restricted access to grocery stores and fresh food seems to have prompted other Canadians to eat less well.

In all, 23 per cent of participants said their eating habits had improved during the pandemic, while 44 per cent admitted they had deteriorated.

Satisfaction with body image had the greatest impact on lifestyle changes during the pandemic.

Some 44 per cent of subjects said they were dissatisfied with their body image during the pandemic, a phenomenon particularly marked among women and gender minorities. Other studies have indicated that people dissatisfied with their body image may have poorer mental health and adopt less healthy lifestyle habits, such as lower levels of physical activity.

It’s also possible, the study authors point out, that subjects who were initially dissatisfied with their body image adopted a more unhealthy lifestyle during the pandemic.

“I think what was missing for this pandemic was having a plan that targets at-risk individuals with resources and support,” Tessier concluded. “We need to target these adults (with) multidisciplinary intervention resources (…) to regain or maintain good mental and physical health.”

The findings were published in the medical journal JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.

This report was first published in French by The Canadian Press, on May 30, 2023.

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