Making things worse

An electron microscope image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus/NIAID

When the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began, there wasn’t much governments could do to make things better, but there were things they could do to make things worse.

And, according to a peer-reviewed study published in BMC Public Health earlier this month, the lockdowns ordered in England to try to slow the spread of the new virus that causes the disease Covid-19 were one of the latter.

Those lockdowns did no favor for the long-term health of older residents of the United Kingdom, according to the research.

The researchers from the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre discovered “a marked decline in older adults’ physical activity levels during the third national lockdown in January 2021” and warned that the decline is directly “associated with frailty and adverse health outcomes.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been warning of the link between lack of physical activity and poor health since long before the pandemic,  but few appear to be listening or if they are, they aren’t doing much about it.

There are no indications the pandemic, which has preyed heavily on the physically unfit, has sparked any shift in American attitudes toward physical activity.

Ever-expanding American waistline lines would, in fact, appear to indicate the opposite.


Harvard researchers have estimated daily physical activity among Americans has decreased by at least a half-hour per day since 1820, and their study was based on pre-pandemic data.

The pandemic just made the problem worse and further increased the risks of people suffering heart disease, diabetes, dementia and certain kinds of cancer – all of which have been linked to lack of physical activity.

”Existing evidence from the international literature suggests that people from a range of populations became less active and/or increased sedentary activities during the pandemic,” the UK researchers wrote. “Considering older adults, evidence from a German and an international study both suggest that containment measures from the early stages of the pandemic (April-June 2020) had a deleterious effect on energy expenditure and frequency of physical activity.”

Crackdowns in some European countries were extreme. Spain restricted people to their homes for the first eight weeks of the pandemic,  El País reported, and various restrictions remained in place after the stay-at-home order was lifted. 

Unfortunately, physical activity, which used to be a daily requirement of life, has become something that can now only be sustained if it becomes a habit. And given the seductiveness of what has been called the “sedentary lifestyle,” this is a habit easily lost.

The importance of physical activity was overlooked in many U.S. states at the start of the pandemic, but Alaska officials are to be commended for avoiding the temptation to order people around for their own good even if it wasn’t good.

The state did impose travel restrictions between communities and encouraged people to avoid close contacts, but quickly made it clear that getting up and moving was a good thing.

Both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the state Department of Health and Social Services announced a state ban on non-essential travel did not apply to those headed off to recreate in Alaska’s vast outback. 

By then something of a recreation exodus was already underway as many urban Alaskans treated the lockdown as a government-ordered vacation and, given a friendly March and April, headed off into the wilds on snowmachines, fat bikes and skis to recreate. 

Meanwhile, other states were slamming shut undeveloped areas.

Residents of Washington state were locked out of state parks and wildlife areas, and Oregon fenced off access to some of its public beaches. People caught crossing the barricades were cited for trespass. 

The long-term consequences of all of this will only be known over the long term in a country where the leading causes of death, now including Covid-19, are linked to lack of physical activity and obesity, which is also often linked to lack of physical inactivity.

Technology’s curse

The problem is really one of technology more than anything.

As Andrew K. Yegia, the lead author on the study of declining physical activity in the U.S. told The Harvard Gazette, “instead of walking to work, we take cars or trains; instead of manual labor in factories, we use machines.

“We’ve made technology to do our physical activity for us. … Our hope is that this (study) helps people think more about the long-term changes of activity that have come with our changes in lifestyle and technology.”

Yegai, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s Department of Human and Evolutionary Biology, understands that this decline in activity runs counter to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in a species – homo sapien – that evolved as animal always on the move.

The link between a lack of physical activity, or what some call exercise, and Covid-19 deaths was recognized early in the pandemic.

Researchers who published in the peer-reviewed British Journal of Sports Medicine in October of last year reported those who were ” who were consistently inactive” had a 2.26 greater risk of hospitalization and a nearly two and half time greater risk of death from Covid-19 than those “who were consistently meeting physical activity guidelines.”

But interest in the link between Covid-19 deaths and physical inactivity seems to have decreased with the arrival of vaccines that lower the risks of death from Covid-19 for both the physically fit and the physically unfit.

Still, the latest data indicates Covid-19 continues to kill 400 to 600 people per day in the U.S. – many of them vaccinated and many of them- if not most – are vulnerable due to their basic lack of physical fitness. But no one seems interested in doing much about it.

Then again, 400 to 600 deaths per day might not be that many, depending on how one looks at it.

Heart disease, another disease linked to lack of physical activity and long the nation’s number one killer, claims 1,800 to 2,000 lives per day on average, according to CDC numbers, has been doing so for years, and does not seem to have motivated many to become more physically active or encouraged political entities to find ways to get people moving in healthy ways instead of doing everything possible to make it easier to get around in motorized vehicles.

3 replies »

  1. As Ronald Reagan said “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

    We’d all be better off if we listened just a little less to what our government(s) tell us is good for us and do what we know is good for us. Look at the food pyramid and just how wrong they’ve been about it.

  2. The long-term consequences of all of this will only be known over the long term in a country where the leading causes of death, now including Covid-19, are linked to lack of physical activity and obesity, which is also often linked to lack of physical inactivity.

    Should be lliked to physical inactivity not lack of

  3. The premise is fallacious: lockdowns do not necessarily impose decreased activity, or less physical fitness, especially for the more elderly.

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