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A hearty lockdown meal (Photo: Getty Images)
A hearty lockdown meal (Photo: Getty Images)

ScienceOctober 27, 2020

How the lockdown changed our diets, affected our sleep, and left us lonely

A hearty lockdown meal (Photo: Getty Images)
A hearty lockdown meal (Photo: Getty Images)

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic prompted New Zealand and much of the world to undertake something few of us had ever contemplated: a near-total lockdown of society. In this Lockdown legacies series, James Dann explores the impacts of those extraordinary measures, intended and otherwise. Today: the lifestyle changes it brought on.

This project was made possible thanks to support from the Aotearoa New Zealand Science Journalism Fund.

For most of us, the lockdown meant massive changes to the way we lived. It changed how we worked, where we worked, what we could do in our spare time. It changed the supermarket from somewhere to drop past on the way home to a place for visiting as rarely as possible, and with military precision. Makeshift classrooms were assembled in homes around the country, while many who had become reliant on eating out or taking away had to reacquaint themselves with the nuances of the kitchen. Taken together, these were big changes, and they had flow-on effects. In this final article in the Lockdown Legacies series we’re looking  at what the lockdown did to our eating habits, sleep patterns and exercise routines, as well as the stress of losing jobs and income and the impacts on our mental health.

The way we ate

The full findings of the Covid Kai survey aren’t yet published, but some preliminary data is available. It shows that people cooked and baked more during lockdown, and that the increase in the number of sourdoughs you saw on Instagram wasn’t just the algorithm – people were baking a lot more bread. Many people in fact found cooking less stressful during lockdown. The same couldn’t be said for trips to the supermarket, which people reported finding both less enjoyable and more stressful. People were also choosing to cook “comfort foods” more, perhaps as a way to try and escape from the chaotic news coming in from around the world.

Walking more, sleeping less

Researchers from Massey, Lincoln, and Canterbury Universities are part of a global study that is looking into physical activity during lockdown. The results won’t be published for a bit, but preliminary findings show that people were participating in activities like gardening and walking the dog more. Waka Kotahi, the NZTA, was also measuring the way people’s movements changed during lockdown. Though they weren’t looking at exercise per se, researchers were able to show that both walking and cycling increased, especially towards the end of level four. There were regional variations, with Dunedin being the most into walking, and Christchurch living up to its reputation as New Zealand’s most cycle-friendly city.

With all the changes to our daily routine, and the existential stress of a global pandemic, it’s not a surprise that many of us weren’t sleeping as well. Massey University’s Sleep Wake Centre surveyed to see how our sleep patterns were affected by the lockdown, and while the full results haven’t been published yet, early findings show that almost half of us were sleeping worse. As the study’s lead Associate Professor Mirjam Munch commented, “sleep quality may be influenced by feelings of worry and anxiety during the lockdown.” An increase in these feelings has been noted by a couple of other studies.

The Ministry of Health has been running a Covid health and wellbeing survey since the pandemic reached this country, sampling people’s mood on a weekly basis. Between 12% and 13% of people reported feelings of anxiety back in April, with the numbers dropping down as we moved out of lockdown. Around a third of us were feeling nervous about our circumstances in April, a number that had halved by June (though this went back up again in August with the re-emergence of the Auckland Covid cluster).

Where the childcare burden falls

Perhaps the most comprehensive survey that looked into how the lockdown affected people’s lives was the Life In Lockdown study run by Victoria University of Wellington. As they explained in the study’s aims, it “focussed on examining consequences of lockdown for people’s economic and employment situations, their individual wellbeing, their family relationships, and the intersection of work and family life.”

The survey asked a number of questions, about parenting, working from home, and work status. They found that people with the lowest income were most likely to have lost their jobs, with the rate of job loss declining as you went up the wage brackets. It also found that only 13% of those in low-income households were able to work from home, compared to 45% of people in higher-income households. NZ Europeans were least likely to have lost their jobs – a finding supported by a survey from Massey that found Māori were twice as likely to have lost their jobs.)

The analysis of men and women with children of different ages was particularly interesting. They found that 70% of working mothers with young children (0-4 years old) reported an increase in family demands, compared to 49% of working fathers in the same group. While the gender gap narrowed as the children got older, it shows the responsibility for raising small children continues to fall largely on mothers.

As the authors note, there are implications for this research that stretch beyond the lockdown, and into government policy settings. “Access to and affordability of childcare appears key to any semblance of work-life balance for parents of young children, as shown by the larger impact on mothers with pre-schoolers,” they write. “If we want mothers to be part of the workforce and our economic recovery, we must ensure all families have access to high quality and affordable childcare. While lockdown was difficult for everyone, this period highlights how much we rely on schools and early childhood education to enable work in the paid economy. It also highlights how work flexibility, when coupled with affordable and high quality childcare, could promote more gender equality in parenting.”

The experiment of working from home on a mass scale may have flow-on effects to the shape of our workforce in the future. A University of Otago study suggests that 73% of people were equally or more productive when working from home, and that nine out of 10 respondents hoped that they would be able to continue to work from home, at least part of the time, as we return to whatever normal might look like.

The loneliness toll

With so many changes to work, life, and routines, as well as daily updates on a world that appeared to be falling apart in real time, it’s not a surprise that people started to feel different. The enforcement of social isolation meant a loss of our regular social networks, and put many people at risk of developing loneliness. This was something looked at by Holly Walker, for the Helen Clark Foundation, and previously covered on the Spinoff.

Using some of the survey responses from the Life In Lockdown study mentioned above, Walker was able to look into how lonely people were feeling. While the number of people reporting feeling lonely most or all of the time went from 3.5% pre-survey, to 10.6% during lockdown, these numbers were even higher for some groups. Those with income under $30,000, people who were unemployed or lost their jobs and young people all saw big increases in the rate of loneliness. The burden of the lockdown did not fall equally across our society, with those at the margins disproportionately affected by it.

Research is ongoing into the impact on the lockdown on people with previous histories of mental health issues, but it has yet to be published. There was a discussion around the number of suicides during the lockdown, with some erroneously claiming that the rate had increased. The chief coroner pushed back against this, and the figures for the year to June show both a drop in the number, and the suicide rate.

Many researchers continue to examine the changes the lockdown had on our society, and we will learn more about its impact as the results and analysis emerge over the next couple of years. We can already see that it entailed changes in the way we ate and cooked, the way we moved around, and how we slept. The impact on how we worked, and the relationship between that and our family life, has broader implications for how we manage the work-life balance as a society.

The full impact of enforced social isolation on our mental health isn’t yet known, but the increase in the rates of loneliness, especially in some of our most vulnerable, paints a striking picture of one unintended consequence of locking down, one which will help inform future decisions about moving in and out of lockdown.

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