Health Habits During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Jennifer Kaddatz and Nadine Badets

April 27, 2020

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Canada’s lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic has placed heavy restrictions on individuals and businesses, which have altered many commonplace activities, from preparing and consuming foods to shopping, exercising and spending time outdoors. The health of adults in Canada is changing, and not just because of the virus, but also because of pre-existing and newly emerging health habits.

Throughout this period of social isolation, adults are spending more time preparing meals and drinking alcohol at home, but spending less time exercising and going outside, according to four weeks of recent survey data from the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger1 and other pandemic data sources.

These patterns will be important to watch throughout the duration of the pandemic, given the potential impacts on both physical and mental health among families across the country.

About 4 in 10 adults spend more time preparing meals at home

Healthy eating is fundamental to good health, is a key element in healthy human development and is important in reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. Preparing and cooking food at home can reduce the amount of sodium, sugar and saturated fat in meals while at the same time increasing the intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and plant-based proteins. On the other hand, eating out or ordering in can negatively impact a person’s health because of the potential for the meals to be more highly processed, with lower quantities of vegetables, fruits and whole grain foods.2

Not surprisingly, during COVID-19 isolation more people in Canada are eating home-cooked meals. In fact, 41% of adults say that they are spending more time preparing meals now than they were before the pandemic, according to April 9–12 data (fig. 1). Women, in particular, seem to be spending more time in the kitchen, with 44% saying they are preparing meals “more often” as compared with 38% of men. In fact, nearly half (48%) of women aged 35–54 are spending more time preparing meals, as are 44% of men in that age group.

In contrast, a lower share of women (18%) than men (24%) picked up take-out food from a restaurant in the week before the April 9–12 survey, although women are about equally as likely (18% vs. 16%) to get food delivered to their home or business (figs. 2 and 3). Young men, aged 18–34, are most likely to pick up take-out food (24%) in the past week, whereas young women aged 18–34 are the gender/age group most likely to order in (27%).

One in 5 adults are drinking more alcohol at home

Alcohol can have significant consequences for physical and mental health if consumed in large quantities, by exacerbating pre-existing mental health issues, increasing the short-term risk of injury or acute illness, and increasing the long-term risk of serious diseases like liver disease and some cancers.3 Accordingly, if alcohol consumption goes up during the coronavirus crisis, there could be significant post-pandemic impacts on individual and family health and on the health care system in Canada.

A survey by Statistics Canada carried out March 29–April 3 found that 20% of Canadians aged 15–49 are drinking more at home during the COVID-19 pandemic than they were before it started.4 Similarly, a March 30–April 2 poll by Nanos/Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction found that 21% of adults aged 18–34 and 25% of those aged 35–54 have started drinking more at home since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.5

Respondents to the Nanos poll who report staying home more and consuming more alcohol say that their drinking has increased most often because of the lack of a regular schedule (51%), boredom (49%), stress (44%) and/or loneliness (19%).

According to data collected April 9–12 by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger, 14% of adults had gone to a liquor store in the previous week, with more men (18%) having done so than women (11%).

Nearly 4 in 10 are exercising less often

Although being confined to home may have increased the amount that adults are drinking, it does not seem to have increased the amount that they are exercising.

On the contrary, nearly 4 in 10 women (38%) and 33% of men say as of April 9–12 that they are exercising “less often” now than they were before pandemic. People living in Quebec (42%) most commonly report a decrease in their frequency of exercise as compared with those in the other provinces.

Notably, it appears that younger families may be spending more time exercising. A greater share of adults who live with children (23%) report they are exercising more often since the pandemic began compared with those who were not living with children (18%) (fig. 4). Additionally, nearly 3 in 10 adults aged 18–34 (28%) say that they were exercising more often since the start of the crisis compared with 14% of adults 55 years and older.

Increased COVID-19 anxiety and decreased exercise may be linked

According to the Canadian Psychological Association, regular physical activity can reduce day-to-day stress, can prevent depression and anxiety disorders, and may be as effective as psychological and pharmaceutical treatments for depression and anxiety.6 At the same time, however, mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, can also make it difficult to adopt or continue with an exercise program, particularly during unusual times.

In fact, April 9–12 data reveal that people who “very often” report anxiety or nervousness during the COVID-19 crisis are more likely to say they are exercising “less often” (20%) now than they were before the pandemic, whereas 13% say they are exercising “equally as often” as before the COVID-19 crisis started.

In comparison, adults who say that they have felt anxious or nervous “not often at all” since the beginning of the pandemic are more likely to say that the frequency with which they exercise has not changed since the start of the pandemic (24%) than to say that they are exercising more often (17%) or less often (17%) now.

Almost half of adults are going outside less often

Spending time outdoors in nature has a significant impact on mental health and wellness.7 Furthermore, in 2016, Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey found that 7 in 10 Canadians participated in one or more outdoor activities, showing that spending time outdoors is an important part of Canadian lifestyles.8

Nevertheless, during the COVID-19 pandemic, almost half of women (46%) and men (45%) say that they are going outside less often now than they were before the crisis. The shares of those saying they are going outside less often vary by province, from a low of 39% in Quebec and Manitoba/Saskatchewan to a high of 49% in Ontario.

What is of particular interest, however, is the variation in the share of people going outside less often by urban or rural area of residence. More than half (54%) of urban dwellers indicate that they are going outside less often now than before the pandemic, compared with 45% of suburban adults and 29% of people living in rural areas.

At the other end of the spectrum, when it came to those who say they are going outside more often, a higher proportion of women (25%) than men (15%) report a positive change.

It will be interesting to see, as spring changes to summer, whether the shares of people in Canada who are going outside, and who are exercising more often, increase with the warmer temperatures.

Jennifer Kaddatz, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada

Nadine Badets, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada

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Notes

  1. The survey, conducted March 10–13, March 27–29, April 3–5 and April 9–12, 2020, included approximately 1,500 individuals aged 18 and older, interviewed using computer-assisted web-interviewing technology in a web-based survey. The March 27–29, April 3–5 and April 9–12 samples also included booster samples of approximately 500 immigrants. Using data from the 2016 Census, results were weighted according to gender, age, mother tongue, region, education level and presence of children in the household in order to ensure a representative sample of the population. No margin of error can be associated with a non-probability sample (web panel in this case). However for comparative purposes, a probability sample of 1,512 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.52%, 19 times out of 20.
  2. Health Canada, Canada’s Food Guide. Link: https://bit.ly/2VsffFO.
  3. Peter Butt, Doug Beirness, Louis Gliksman, Catherine Paradis and Tim Stockwell, Alcohol and Health in Canada: A Summary of Evidence and Guidelines for Low Risk Drinking. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (November 25, 2011). Link: https://bit.ly/3avfCne (PDF).
  4. Statistics Canada, “How Are Canadians Coping with the COVID-19 Situation?” Infographics (April 8, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/2wVzkuL.
  5. Nanos conducted an RDD dual frame (land- and cell-lines) hybrid telephone and online random survey of 1,036 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, between March 30 to April 2, 2020 as part of an omnibus survey. Participants were randomly recruited by telephone using live agents and administered a survey online. The margin of error for this survey is ±3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The research was commissioned by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and was conducted by Nanos Research. Link: https://bit.ly/3aybEue (PDF).
  6. Canadian Psychological Association, “Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: Physical Activity, Mental Health, and Motivation (November 2016). Link: https://bit.ly/2yvVXXb (PDF).
  7. Canadian Parks Council, Connecting Canadians with Nature: An Investment in the Well-Being of Our Citizens (2014). Link: https://bit.ly/2SIeu9q.
  8. Statistics Canada, Canadians and the Outdoors (March 26, 2018). Link: https://bit.ly/34VPdy1.

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