Working from home is not only negatively impacting on our health right now, but "it may take years" for the UK to recover from this, a report warns.
One in five (19%) of those working from home more frequently – a lasting effect of COVID-19 – are exercising less often, while nearly a third (31%) are eating more, new research claims.
And despite many more worried about their wellness than ever before, almost half of respondents have not visited their GP in the past year and 60% have not had a dental check-up, findings from the new Bupa Wellbeing Index, a survey of 8,000 UK adults in March show.
While many have seen the positives of working from home, including flexibility with personal lives, avoiding the daily commute, cost, and more, this new research has shone a light on the risks of a sedentary lifestyle.
Previous studies show that inactivity can be as harmful to the body as smoking, and spending more time sitting is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and blood clots, while there are also links to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and chronic stress.
Despite us now emerging from the restrictions of the pandemic, 31% of adults say their fitness is poor, with these levels ranking lower than mental health, physical health and wellbeing scores, the Index reports. And this is not just limited to older people, with those aged 35-44 most likely to say they are unfit.
Other lifestyle factors are also still affected. Some 15% said they are drinking more alcohol since the start of the pandemic, while weight (33%) is the nation's top concern, and the general mental health of 34% has declined during the pandemic, in part due to lockdowns and the impact of increased remote working.
"Lockdowns, gym closures and general uncertainty made it difficult for many to prioritise their health during the pandemic," says Dr. Robin Clark, medical director for Bupa Global & UK.
"Despite restrictions ending, it looks like, as a nation, we're still struggling to stay active and eat well with the unfortunate consequence that it may take years for our health to return to pre-pandemic levels.
"This is worrying because the World Health Organisation has identified exercise and physical activity as one of our four habits – alongside a healthy diet, avoiding harmful use of alcohol and not smoking – which will dramatically reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease."
However, the report shows many are now resolving to change their habits, with 35% working to cut down on unhealthy foods and 30% walking or exercising more regularly.
With as many as 89% of adults wanting to make health a top priority (compared to the 51% who want to prioritise career), other improvements being made include getting more sleep, finding a work life balance, cutting down on alcohol and quitting smoking.
"Taking the first steps towards a more active, healthy lifestyle is key and it's really encouraging to see health is firmly back on the agenda for many attempting to reverse some of the negative side-effects of 'staying home'," says Dr Clark.
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Tracey Devonport, Professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Wolverhampton says the findings of the new Bupa Wellbeing Index are mirrored by an international survey examining the impact of the pandemic on health behaviours. "It revealed UK participants reported the lowest levels of perceived physical health and greatest weight gain during the pandemic," she says.
"It also indicated that irrespective of country of residence or age, participants reporting reduced physical activity typically experienced poorer physical and mental health.” She said that the collective research exploring the impact of the pandemic on health sends out an important message – the value of investing in our present and future self by improving our health behaviours.
Dr Clark urges those still putting their health on the back burner or delaying medical appointments to act quickly. "Getting back on the road to improved health and wellbeing can be taken in small steps, and early diagnosis is key to getting quick access to treatment."
Consult your GP if you need help with making changes to your diet and activity levels, or are concerned about your health.