A new study published in the Journal of Frontiers in Psychology looked at the cross-cultural health behaviors and wellbeing of people during COVID-19.
“The purpose of the study was to examine the impact of the pandemic on perceived physical and mental health, changes in physical activity, sleep, eating, and wellbeing,” study author Montse Ruiz told us. “Different measures have been adopted to minimize the spread of the virus. We examined possible differences in health outcomes across participants residing in countries with different confinement measures.”
Ruiz is a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.
According to the conservation of resources theory (Hobfoll, 2011), individual resources are related to quality of life and wellbeing. Resources and their growth are associated with higher quality of life, while loss of resources is related with lower quality of life, with resource loss being much more significant than resource gain.
“Based on this theory, we expected that participants experiencing strict containment measures would experience a loss of resources, perceiving most detrimental changes in health behaviors,” Ruiz told us. “While in most countries individuals were encouraged to be physically active, in some countries, for instance in Spain, outdoor physical activity was temporarily banned.”
There is substantial evidence on the benefits of physical activity (e.g., in strengthening the immune system or in preventing/treating non-communicable diseases). Physical activity may also affect key health behaviors. Research has highlighted the importance of these health behaviors (sleep, eating, and physical activity), and evidenced that they may be affected by pandemics.
“We hoped that exploring how the pandemic affected people residing in different countries and experiencing different restrictions would provide important information that could inform future response planning and the development of specific interventions,” Ruiz told us. “We developed an online survey including questions related to demographic information and current living situation, physical and mental health, perceived changes in working situation, health routines and wellbeing.”
The survey was distributed in the United Kingdom, South Korea, Finland, the Philippines, in Latin American countries, Spain, North America, and Italy. A total of 1,131 participants completed the survey.
Overall, changes in physical activity during the pandemic were significant for participants’ health (physical and mental) and wellbeing. Participants reported a great variability in their physical activity. Some of them reported a great increase in their physical activity levels, while others reported a high decrease.
Increases in physical activity were associated with better physical health, increased wellbeing and sleep, whereas decreased physical activity associated with worse mental health and an increase in eating and weight.
Participants residing in Finland reported highest scores in physical health, while UK participants reported poorest physical health. Latin American participants reported being most affected by personal or emotional problems, while South Koreans were least affected compared to most countries.
“The findings highlight the importance of physical activity,” Ruiz told us. “Irrespective of age and country of residence, participants indicating a decrease in physical activity levels experienced poorer physical health and mental health along with reduced wellbeing. In line with the conservation of resources theory, physical activity may be considered a beneficial coping resource used to prevent or ameliorate the effects of stress.”
The study is cross-sectional (the survey was administered only once) and was conducted at the first stages of the pandemic. Thus, longitudinal research may help understand the causal relationships among these variables (perhaps considering additional demographic variables), and their long-term impact on wellbeing.
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com