The new health pandemic: over 7 in 10 Britons aren’t exercising enough, a quarter of over 55s have done no exercise AT ALL since COVID-19 hit and 41% say mental health is worse

A quarter of over 55s have done no exercise at all since the start of the first lockdown, while 41% of Britons surveyed say their mental health has worsened[1], according to a new Index that lays bare the true impact of COVID-19 on the nation.

The Nuffield Health Healthier Nation Index, launched by the UK’s largest healthcare charity, is based on a comprehensive survey of just over 8,000 Britons and offers one of the most detailed looks at the nation’s health since the start of the pandemic. It reveals:

  • The true scale of physical inactivity since March last year, with 73%[2] failing to meet NHS recommendations on exercise and successive lockdowns leading to unhealthy habits.
  • The growing mental health crisis, with women feeling the impact of home schooling, professional pressure and caring responsibilities.
  • That millions of Britons have turned to booze and food as treats during lockdown – while others are nervous about socialising when lockdown ends.
  • The growing challenge the Government is facing to build a healthier nation, with a quarter of Britons saying they won’t do anything for their physical and mental health once lockdown has ended.
Reflecting on the findings, Judy Murray OBE, Ambassador for the Healthier Nation Index, said:


“Good physical and mental health are intrinsically linked and the Index shows that the pandemic has had a significant impact not only on the nation’s mental health – but also on our ability to exercise. The focus must now be on helping people get active to make sure we don’t store up problems for the future.

“It is deeply worrying that 1 in 4 people over the age of 55 haven’t exercised at all in the last year but the good news is it’s never too late to get moving and reap the benefits of a more active life. We need to make sure everyone has the tools they need to look after their mental and physical health, and everyone should see 2021 as a critical opportunity to prioritise their health and wellbeing.”

Physical health

The Index reveals that on average a third of Britons (33%) agree their physical health is worse[1] than this time last year, with older age groups reporting a worse decline - and just 10% of Baby Boomers (over 55s) agreed their physical health has improved[3].

Despite well-publicised evidence pointing to the link between obesity and severity of illness from COVID-19, and in the wake of the Prime Minister announcing a new obesity strategy last year, 16% of the population – which accounts for an estimated 8.8 million adults – have done no exercise at all in the last 12 months. This rises to a quarter of over 55s, despite research showing a lack of exercise to be one of the highest risk factors for death from COVID-19.

The survey shows that 73% failed to meet the NHS recommendation[4] that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, such as a brisk walk or pushing a lawn mower, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week, which includes jogging and walking up the stairs. Recent research has even shown that regular exercise reduces the chances of dying from infectious diseases such as COVID-19 by more than a third[5].

The main barriers[6] for undertaking more physical activity included a lack of motivation or energy (59%), a lack of time due to work (50%), a dislike of exercise (39%) and cost (36%). But the Index also reveals the impact of months in lockdown, with nearly two fifths (37%) agreeing they fell out of the habit of exercising and have found it difficult to restart. This rises to 49% in millennials (25-to 34-year-olds).

And in a sign of the devastating impact of COVID-19, 7% - representing an estimated 3.65 million people – said they have struggled to exercise in the last 12 months due to long-term symptoms, or ‘long Covid’. This provides further evidence on the number of people struggling with long-term symptoms, with ONS data suggesting it occurs in 1 in 7 people who have had COVID-19.

Mental health

The nation’s mental health has been similarly impacted, with women in particular feeling the impact of home schooling, professional pressure and caring responsibilities.

On average, 41% of people said their mental health is worse[1] than this time last year, but this rose to nearly one in two women (49%). More than a fifth of Britons (21%) reported low life satisfaction[7], while over a third (36%) reported high anxiety(8) when asked how they felt on the previous day.

In terms of the biggest impactors[9] on mental health:

  • Pressures linked to work had the biggest impact on the nation’s mental health in the last 12 months (54%), rising to 58% of women.
  • Money worries affected 44%, rising to 49% of women.
  • Personal lives and relationships impacted 42%, and 47% of women, while unsurprisingly health issues affected 40%.
  • Parents of only children were the most likely (31%) to say childcare or home-schooling had an impact on their mental health. Women were also more likely than men to be impacted by this (22% vs 18%).
  • A quarter of 25-to 34-year-olds surveyed said alcohol had had an impact on their mental health, while 23% admitted smoking did.

There is also significant concern about family members. Almost half (49%) of 25- to 34-year-olds agreed[10] they were more concerned about their parents’ mental health now because of COVID-19, while 47% of parents agreed[7] to expressing fears about their children’s mental health.

Despite this, with society reopening after the third lockdown, nearly half of Britons (47%) agree[7] they were nervous about socialising again, with 38% agreeing[7] they will do so less than they did pre-pandemic.

Food and drink

The nation’s eating and drinking habits have also been affected by COVID-19, with millions turning to food and booze as treats during successive lockdowns.

The Index found almost half of Britons (46%) agreed[7] to using food as a treat more frequently during COVID-19 lockdowns, rising to 54% of women and 55% of 35 to 44-year-olds. Meanwhile, 37% agreed[7] they found it harder to eat healthily during lockdown.

Despite recognising the impact of alcohol on mental health, 27% agreed[7] to using alcohol as a treat more frequently, rising to more than a third (36%) of 25 to 34-year-olds.

Future health

The future picture looks bleak.

  • 24% of Britons do not plan to do anything in relation to exercise or their physical or mental health, once lockdown restrictions have ended.
  • Over 55s were most likely to say they wouldn’t do anything for their physical or mental health once lockdown ends (36%).
  • While 46% of Britons identified themselves as overweight, 25% of those admitted they are not actively trying to change this.

However, there are green shoots of hope starting to appear, particularly when it comes to understanding the link between physical and mental health:

  • Almost 3 in 10 of people said they the main reason people they were motivated to exercise and look after their physical health in the last 12 months was because exercising helps with their mental health (28%).
  • Almost half of people (47%) agreed[7] they would take more responsibility for their health after lockdown.

The Healthier Nation Index is set to become an annual barometer of the nation’s health and wellbeing, with the second Index due to be published in January 2022.

Dr Davina Deniszczyc, Medical Director at Nuffield Health, said:


“The findings from the Healthier Nation Index show the stark effect COVID-19 is having on people’s physical and mental health. There are some worrying trends that if not addressed could see us sleepwalking into another type of health pandemic.

It is essential that we now focus on national recovery and the prevention of long-term health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart conditions. This starts with regular physical exercise, which is crucial not only for preventing health conditions but also for maintaining good mental health. It’s shocking to see the levels of inactivity with the vast majority of people failing to meet NHS guidelines for exercise and many older people haven’t been doing any exercise at all.

We need to do everything we can to increase exercise rates, reduce long term health conditions if we are to build the resilience of the nation’s health and avoid another health crisis.”

Steve Gray, CEO of Nuffield Health,
said:

“As the UK’s largest healthcare charity, we have launched the Healthier Nation Index to understand how people are feeling physically and mentally in the UK, now and in the future. The findings reveal a clear need for fitness and healthcare providers to work together with the NHS, Government and charity partners to tackle the barriers that prevent people from exercising, make it easier for people to take control of their mental and physical health, and begin building a healthier nation.”

-ENDS-

Notes to editors

  1. The Nuffield Health Healthier Nation Index landing page will be published on Wednesday 28 April and will be available here: www.nuffieldhealth.com/healthiernation
  2. If you have any questions, please contact:

Interviews
Interviews are available with the following people. Please email nuffieldhealth@lexcomm.co.uk or call 07920 828 768 if you would like to speak to someone:

  • Judy Murray OBE, Ambassador
  • Dr Davina Deniszczyc, Medical Director at Nuffield Health
  • Steve Gray, Nuffield Health CEO

Images
Images are available on via this WeTransfer link.

Methodology
All figures for the Healthier Nation Index, unless otherwise stated, are from Censuswide. The total sample size was 8,001 adults (aged 16+). Fieldwork was undertaken between 25 March and 1 April 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are nationally representative, unless indicated otherwise. Censuswide abides by and employs members of the Market Research Society which is based on the ESOMAR principles.

A copy of the dataset used can be provided on request.

About the Nuffield Health Healthier Nation Index
The Nuffield Health Healthier Nation Index is based on a comprehensive annual survey of 8,000 Britons and offers one of the most detailed looks at all aspects of the nation’s physical and mental health. Our aim is to understand how people are feeling, identify where the biggest challenges are, and provide this crucial information to the public, the NHS and policymakers, so that it can be used to improve outcomes for everyone and build a healthier nation.

2021 is the first year of the Index and it gives us a unique and vital picture of how the UK is faring since the start of the pandemic. We will carry out this poll annually, which will enable us to identify trends and changes year on year. The large sample size allows us to dive deep into variations among age group, gender, ethnicity region and socio-economic background. Fieldwork was undertaken between 25 March and 1 April 2021. The figures have been weighted and are nationally representative, unless indicated otherwise.

About Nuffield Health
Nuffield Health is the UK’s largest healthcare charity. For the last 60 years, Nuffield Health’s experts have been working together to make the nation fitter, healthier, happier and stronger, all for the public benefit. We do this through outstanding day-to-day services in our family of 31 award-winning hospitals, 113 fitness and wellbeing centres, healthcare clinics, and over 150 workplace wellbeing services, and through our flagship programmes to support communities by widening access.

What makes us unique is the breadth of our expertise to provide connected care spanning from personal training and health assessments to supporting people on their fitness journeys, helping patients recover with physiotherapy or emotional wellbeing services, or providing hospital treatments for illness and serious conditions like arthritis or cancer.

But what also makes us different is our commitment to our flagship programmes to widen access, be that improving the lives of hundreds of children with cystic fibrosis through free exercise classes, or by pioneering the world’s largest research project into how exercise can help men recovering from prostate cancer, or by partnering with schools to provide thousands of pupils with free timetabled programmes to improve their health and wellbeing.

Find out more about us and our pioneering models of care: https://www.nuffieldhealth.com or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn

Sources
[1] Statistic was obtained by combining ‘Slightly worse’ and ‘Significantly worse’ responses.
[2] Respondents aged between 19 and 64 years old who did not meet the NHS’s recommended amount for either moderate (150 minutes) or vigorous (75 minutes) physical activity per week in the last 12 months. Physical activity guidelines for adults aged between 19 and 64 can be found here: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/
[3]Statistic was obtained by combining ‘Slightly better’ and ‘Significantly better’ responses.
[4] Respondents aged between 19 and 64 years old who did not meet the NHS’s recommended amount for either moderate (150 minutes) or vigorous (75 minutes) physical activity per week in the last 12 months. Physical activity guidelines for adults aged between 19 and 64 can be found here: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/
[5] https://news.sky.com/story/covid-19-regular-exercise-may-cut-covid-19-death-risk-by-a-third-major-st...
[6] Statistic was obtained by combining ‘Significant barrier’ and ‘Slight barrier’ responses.
[7] Statistic was obtained by combining scores ‘0,1,2,3’ for average life satisfaction.
[8] Statistic was obtained by combining scores ‘6,7,8,9,10’.
[9] Statistic was obtained by combining ‘Significant impact’ and ‘Slight impact’ responses.
[10] Statistic was obtained by combining ‘Strongly agree’ and ‘Somewhat agree’ responses.

Last updated Tuesday 27 April 2021