COVID-19 Effects on Activity Levels

Tasneem Harnekar

Working out is a great way to manage stress and feel a sense of accomplishment, with regular physical activity having positive effects on your overall well-being by boosting your mood through increased serotonin levels in your brain.

Before the alarming levels of the spread and severity of COVID-19 were known or pandemic declarations were made, in mid-February 2020 we launched a companywide international pilot at Gen Re that studied the behavioral impact of and adherence to a new heart rate-based activity metric—personal activity intelligence (PAI)—with the intention of improving the health and well-being of those who participated.

The study provides a convenient window into the influence of lockdown restrictions and how concern over the rising number of COVID-19 cases has had an effect on activity levels of people who continue to be gainfully employed during these trying times. See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Activity Levels and Participation Around the Lockdown

Date March 1, 2020 March 14, 2020 (pre-lockdown) March 30, 2020 (post-lockdown) April 14, 2020
(>2 weeks after lockdown)
April 28, 2020
(>4 weeks after lockdown)
Number of participants 486 468 428 382 342
Average PAI score 82.97 97.7  95.16 107.24 106.28
Number of U.K. participants 58 54 48 44 38
Average U.K. PAI score 85.79  96.25  96.88 100.02 112.45

With lockdown restrictions in place, moving from home to the office has a considerably shorter commute time, with most people simply exchanging one room in the house for another. More time on hand means more time to potentially be active, but most people find themselves unable to use this time to exercise. Surveying all participants, a random selection of 89 responded and provided some key insights into what has been happening post-lockdown.

While approximately 24 percent of respondents found themselves to be more active as a direct consequence of their COVID-19 circumstances, citing more time and the pandemic stimulating a need to ensure they remain healthy as motivational reasons, 61.8 percent of participants indicated they were less active. The majority of those with dependents found themselves with less time to be active due to family obligations. Overall, the adjustment in physical activity habits from the gym/recreation center to home was seen as a barrier to exercise.

Looking at overall numbers, the drop-off in participation (number of inactive participants) steeply increases just post-lockdown and continues two weeks post-lockdown, only beginning to slow about four weeks post-lockdown. While we expect engagement over time to decrease, the nature of the lockdown has exacerbated the drop-off. Investigating the data further, drop-off is higher for those within the average and unfit categories, indicating that perhaps those with shaky habits did not transition as well as those with mature habits under the imposed restrictions.

Maintaining a PAI score of 100 or above has been associated with improving health protection from COVID-19 and other lifestyle diseases. While drop-offs have increased during this time, a positive of this analysis is the indication that most people within the pilot group continue to motivate themselves to achieve high PAI scores, with average PAI scores (a proxy for activity levels) increasing as the inactive drop off.

With physical activity not only benefitting your physical health but being beneficial to mental well-being as well, it has been increasingly important to ensure that we keep moving during this time. Being part of the pilot myself in the United Kingdom, I have noticed the impact that social relationships have played while social distancing—they help ensure participants stay motivated to attain their activity goals, with drops-offs at the two-week and four-week post-lockdown periods being lower than the average for the global group. Peer encouragement and challenges presented by colleagues showing their scores earned each day have been a constant reminder to keep up with our activities. Looking at the numbers, the role of this community of PAI participants has ensured that we are moving in the right direction.

In a world where social distancing is the new reality, forming a community that can help you attain activity goals may be key in maintaining mental and physical health, which have been proven to have a causal relationship with longevity.

Tasneem Harnekar, CERA, FASSA, FIA, FRM, is life and health digital actuary at Gen Re in London.

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