Why everyone should see 2021 as a critical opportunity to prioritise their health and wellbeing

We understand that the past year has taken its toll on everyone’s physical and mental health. As the UK’s largest healthcare charity, we’re committed to building a healthier nation and supporting the recovery from the pandemic.

Why everyone should see 2021 as a critical opportunity to prioritise their health and wellbeing

That’s why we’ve launched the Healthier Nation Index. Based on a comprehensive survey of just over 8,000 UK adults, it offers one of the most detailed looks at the nation’s physical and mental health since the start of the pandemic. It reveals:

  • the true scale of physical inactivity since March last year, with 73% of people failing to meet NHS recommendations on exercise
  • pressures linked to work had the biggest impact on the nation’s mental health in the past 12 months
  • a quarter of people said they do not plan to do anything for their physical and mental health once lockdown has ended.

Reflecting on the findings, Judy Murray OBE, ambassador for the Healthier Nation Index, said:

“Good physical and mental health are intrinsically linked and the Index shows that the pandemic has had a significant impact not only on the nation’s mental health – but also on our ability to exercise. The focus must now be on helping people get active to make sure we don’t store up problems for the future.”

Physical health

The Index reveals that on average a third of people agree their physical health is worse than this time last year, with older age groups reporting a worse decline – and just 10% of Baby Boomers (over 55s) agreed their physical health has improved.

Despite well-publicised evidence pointing to the link between obesity and severity of illness from Covid-19, and in the wake of the Prime Minister announcing a new obesity strategy last year, 16% of the population – which accounts for an estimated 8.8 million adults – have done no exercise at all in the last 12 months. This rises to a quarter of over 55s, despite research showing a lack of exercise to be one of the highest risk factors for death from Covid-19.

The survey shows that 73% failed to meet the NHS recommendation that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, such as a brisk walk or pushing a lawn mower, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week, which includes jogging and walking up the stairs. Recent research has even shown that regular exercise reduces the chances of dying from infectious diseases such as Covid-19 by more than a third.

The main barriers for undertaking more physical activity included a lack of motivation or energy, a lack of time due to work, a dislike of exercise and cost. But the Index also reveals the impact of months in lockdown, with nearly two-fifths agreeing they fell out of the habit of exercising and have found it difficult to restart. This rises to 49% in millennials (25-to 34-year-olds).

And in a sign of the devastating impact of Covid-19, 7% – representing an estimated 3.65 million people – said they have struggled to exercise in the last 12 months due to long-term symptoms, or ‘long Covid’. This provides further evidence on the number of people struggling with long-term symptoms, with Office for National Statistics data suggesting it occurs in one in seven people who have had Covid-19.

Mental health

The nation’s mental health has been similarly impacted, with women in particular feeling the impact of home schooling, professional pressure and caring responsibilities.

On average, 41% of people said their mental health is worse than this time last year, but this rose to nearly one in two women. More than a fifth of people reported low life satisfaction, while over a third reported high anxiety when asked how they felt on the previous day.

In terms of the biggest impactors on mental health:

  • pressures linked to work had the biggest impact on the nation’s mental health in the last 12 months (54%), rising to 58% of women
  • money worries affected 44%, rising to 49% of women
  • personal lives and relationships impacted 42%, and 47% of women, while unsurprisingly health issues affected 40%
  • parents of one child were the most likely (31%) to say childcare or home-schooling had an impact on their mental health. Women were also more likely than men to be impacted by this (22% vs 18%)
  • a quarter of 25-to 34-year-olds surveyed said alcohol had had an impact on their mental health, while 23% admitted smoking did.

There is also significant concern about family members. Almost half of 25- to 34-year-olds agreed they were more concerned about their parents’ mental health now because of Covid-19, while 47% of parents agreed to expressing fears about their children’s mental health.

Despite this, with society reopening after the third lockdown, nearly half of people agree they were nervous about socialising again, with 38% agreeing they will do so less than they did pre-pandemic.

Food and drink

The nation’s eating and drinking habits have also been affected by Covid-19, with millions turning to food and alcohol as treats during successive lockdowns.

The Index found almost half of people agreed to using food as a treat more frequently during Covid-19 lockdowns, rising to 54% of women and 55% of 35 to 44-year-olds. Meanwhile, 37% agreed they found it harder to eat healthily during lockdown.

Despite recognising the impact of alcohol on mental health, 27% agreed to using alcohol as a treat more frequently, rising to more than a third of 25 to 34-year-olds.

Future health

The future picture raises further concerns:

  • 24% of people do not plan to do anything in relation to exercise or their physical or mental health, once lockdown restrictions have ended
  • over 55s were most likely to say they wouldn’t do anything for their physical or mental health once lockdown ends
  • while 46% of people identified themselves as overweight, 25% of those admitted they are not actively trying to change this.

However, there are green shoots of hope starting to appear, particularly when it comes to understanding the link between physical and mental health:

  • almost three in 10 people said that the main reason they were motivated to exercise and look after their physical health in the last 12 months was because exercising helps with their mental health
  • almost half of people agreed they would take more responsibility for their health after lockdown.

Dr Davina Deniszczyc, medical director at Nuffield Health, said:

“The findings from the Healthier Nation Index show the stark effect Covid-19 is having on people’s physical and mental health. There are some worrying trends that if not addressed could see us sleepwalking into another type of health pandemic.

“We need to do everything we can to increase exercise rates and reduce long term health conditions if we are to build the resilience of the nation’s health and avoid another health crisis.”

The Healthier Nation Index is set to become an annual barometer of the nation’s health and wellbeing, with the second Index due to be published in January 2022.

Read a range of helpful resources and articles to share with your employees. These cover many areas identified in the Index that people need support with such as mental health, becoming more active and social anxiety.

This article is provided by Nuffield Health.

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