Has COVID-19 boosted interest in physical activity?

2 July 2020
Surge of online interest in exercise
Have you searched online for 'home-based exercise' or 'high-intensity workout' recently? Turns out you're not the only one.

According to an analysis of Google Trends data led by researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre online interest in exercise has been at an all-time high during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While I’d love to say this surge in searches has mirrored higher levels of physical activity in the community, it really is too early to tell,” said Associate Professor Melody Ding, an epidemiologist and behavioural change scientist at the Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health.

“It’s worth noting however that big data sources like Google Trends are an important indicator of community intention and preparation, both precursors to behavioural change. Such sources have been used to monitor everything from outbreaks to misinformation during the pandemic.”

In an editorial, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine the research team details what Google trends (analysis of the popularity of search queries in Google Search) can tell us about population level interest in physical activity before and during COVID-19 outbreaks in Australia, the UK and the USA.

Key findings:

In all three countries, community interest in exercise surged immediately following the lockdown period, peaked within the first two weeks, then declined but remained at a higher level than before lockdown.

  • Population level interest in exercise in April 2020 was at an all-time high since Google Trends records began in 2004.
  • Despite ‘television show’ remaining an overall more searched topic than ‘exercise’, the increase in ‘exercise’ was so large that it surpassed ‘television show’ for the first two weeks following the lockdown in Australia and the UK.
  • Associate Professor Ding said the findings are in line with other studies including a recent survey conducted by Sport England.

“The survey showed 62 percent of adults thought that being active is more important now than pre-COVID-19, and more than half reported being encouraged to exercise by the government’s guidance on exercise as an essential activity.”

And while recent data from Garmin fitness trackers suggested that step-count decreased during COVID-19, exercise, particularly indoors, increased substantially.

“There could be a number of reasons for the increase such as people having more time, trying to make up for reduced incidental exercise or a heightened focus on health and wellbeing from the media, governments and health authorities,” she said.

“While there is no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic will be one of the most significant public health crises of our time, it could also provide the opportunity for governments and health authorities to seize on an increased interest in healthy lifestyles.”

Why is physical activity so important?

Associate Professor Ding recently co-authored a paper in The Lancet Global Health that suggests at least 3.9 million early deaths are averted worldwide each year by people being physically active.

The team, led by the University of Cambridge, looked at previously published data for 168 countries, on the proportion of the population meeting the World Health Organization’s global recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity throughout the week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination.

By combining these data with estimates of the relative risk of dying early for active people compared to inactive people, the authors were able to estimate the proportion of premature deaths that were prevented because people are physically active.

“Based on these calculations Australia’s physical activity levels have averted 5,000 deaths among men and 2,800 deaths among women each year,” said Associate Professor Ding.

“Prevention is often not given credit because we hardly see its effects when it works, but this study clearly shows the importance of adequate levels of physical activity.”

Declaration: The authors on both papers declare no competing interests.

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