Pandemic Lifestyle Has Worsened Health of University Students, Study Finds
The Covid19 pandemic has led to a significant worsening of already poor dietary habits, low activity levels, sedentary behavior, and high alcohol consumption among university students, finds a recent study conducted by the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.
Researchers worry the demographic — already vulnerable to unhealthy lifestyle habits — will maintain unhealthy eating and drinking patterns and poor exercise habits after pandemic restrictions end. This could increase health risks for this population not only during the pandemic but also long term.
The four-month-long study involved 125 graduate and undergraduate students living independently, with roommates, or with partners, and responsible for buying and preparing their own meals. Through an online questionnaire, the scientists connected data about their food and drink consumption, physical activity, and activity level before and during the pandemic.
The study found that students consumed less food every day during the pandemic compared to before—20% less meat, 44% less dairy, and 45% fewer vegetables. While they also drank considerably fewer caffeinated beverages such as coffee and tea, their alcohol consumption increased significantly.
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“With pre-pandemic research already showing university students to be a vulnerable group for inadequate diet and physical activity, the measures imposed to curb the Covid pandemic presented a unique opportunity to examine the further impact on their lives,” lead author and nutrition professor Gordon Zello said in a statement. “This dietary inadequacy combined with long hours of sedentary behavior and decreased physical activity could increase health risks in this unique population during Covid19 confinement and once the pandemic ends.”
The measures implemented to fight Covid19 spread, such as reduced store and restaurant hours, may have limited students’ grocery shopping frequency and availability of food at home. And while only 16% of participants were getting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity per week before the pandemic, the amount further decreased to 9.6% during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the number of hours spent sedentary rose by three hours a day.
The study linked the lack of physical activity to remote learning—students were no longer walking to schools and instead spending multiple hours in front of their screens. “There’s no doubt that measures such as the closures of gyms and other recreational facilities by the universities and other private and public establishments within the province resulted in reductions in the level of physical activity,” the study states.
Several studies have looked into the impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health and concluded that this period had been particularly challenging psychologically. This psychological distress has been linked to poor diet quality and particularly increased consumption of alcohol. In addition, students could be eating less to offset their lack of exercise and increased inactivity.
The authors say university students — especially those most vulnerable to poor nutrition and sedentary behavior — should be targeted for interventions aimed at maintaining and improving physical activity and dietary practices during this pandemic and beyond.