Physical Activity and COVID-19’s Impact Around the World


The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, in response to COVID-19. 

The National States of Emergencies were announced over the following month by almost every country and state worldwide, responding to the “public health emergency of international concern.”

These responses have mostly been to enforce national and local lockdowns, with everything from restaurants to gyms closing for the foreseeable future and people being required to remain in their homes unless for “essential” reasons. 

Due to these restrictions, we’ve seen significant changes in the way people view and partake in physical exercise. From people losing their jobs to an increase in weight gain and mental health concerns, this disease has impacted almost every aspect of everyday life.


In an attempt to curtail the spread of COVID-19, most states have issued emergency restrictions, ensuring people remain indoors and only interact with others if absolutely necessary. Masks worn in public and more frequent hand washing are now familiar sights in addition to social and physical distancing.

While these measures are intended to stem the flow of COVID-19, the unintended side-effect of keeping people apart is starting to show: with increased reports of mental health concerns including depression and anxiety and decreased physical health and many people’s activity worldwide.

Steps Around the World

A Study from June 2020, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, reviewed the data of 455,404 step tracking apps from 187 countries worldwide. They found a global average step decrease of 5.5% (287 steps) within just 10 days of the WHO announcement. Within 30 days, this grew to a 27.3% decrease (1,432 steps). 

Regionally, these results were even more shocking. For example, Italy showed a maximum 48.7% decrease within 30 days of their nationwide lockdown announced on March 9, 2020. Sweden, which took a far softer approach to restrictions, showed a maximum decrease of just 6.9%.

Researchers also looked at how long before various countries showed a 15% decrease in the number of steps counted:

  • Italy = 5 days
  • Spain = 9 days
  • France = 12 days
  • India = 14 days
  • The United States = 15 days (although individual states show widely varying results)
  • The United Kingdom = 17 days
  • Australia = 19 days
  • Japan = 24 days

Personal Impact

The decrease in steps counted by fitness apps is only one part of reducing physical activity evident on a global scale. With less reason to go out, no socializing, and gyms being closed, it can be tough to find a way to incorporate physical activity into a lockdown lifestyle.

This can be especially impactful on low-income families, who might not have the funds to create a home gym or even the space to participate in physical exercise indoors.

Those who are vulnerable are also significantly affected by the restrictions. 

Even before COVID-19, people living with medical conditions such as cancer or even dementia needed to exercise regularly. With enhanced lockdowns and risks, however, actually participating in physical activity can be a near-impossible task for our most vulnerable. 


For many people, exercising at home (even with no equipment and limited space) is still possible. The rise in exercise tutorials on YouTube and other online sources can offer a guided workout. Physical fitness games can also be appealing to people of all ages, and most can be played in a confined space.

Incorporating other kinds of physical activity can also help. Housework, walking up/down stairs, card games and dancing to music all provide the body with movement and even aid mental health.

Strength training and resistance bands have also been shown as invaluable during lockdown, not requiring too much space while maintaining and building muscle strength. This is especially vital for people with physical disabilities and the elderly, who can suffer if they do not regularly participate in some form of physical activity. 

The Digital Divide 

Although there are many resources online to aid with physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, other problems are highlighted by this.

The digital divide means these online resources aren’t available to everyone. For many nations and poorer communities, internet access can be problematic at best or even non-existent, restricting access to physical activity aids. This can also affect mental health on a broader scale, as people living in these communities cannot video chat with friends and families: an essential lifeline for many of us living alone during this time. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and mental health

Not only is the digital divide causing disparities between richer and poorer communities’ ability to access help with their fitness and mental health, there are other problems with lockdown that an online fitness class might not be able to solve.

Sports, in particular, are frequently used as a bonding exercise in people of all ages. Whether participating or spectating, sports can bring people together.

For children, sport teaches valuable life lessons. By learning to work as a team to achieve a goal, children use sport and exercise more than just fitness.

It’s important to remember that physical activity is about more than the body. It’s also essential for a healthy mind and overall wellbeing.


Restricting access to physical activity will have adverse effects on a global scale.

Not only can we expect to see increases in obesity in children, adults, and senior citizens, but a decrease in mental health due to a lack of exercise and lack of socialization is likely to go hand-in-hand.

The WHO might have announced a state of national emergency concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a waiting game to see what sort of emergencies result from stringent lockdowns and limited access to exercise.

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