Before Covid-19, an ordinary evening for Tim Ludford, a charity worker, looked something like this: after-work drinks with colleagues; an Uber home; a takeaway. “Not healthy takeaways, either,” says Ludford, 37, from London. He would polish off a curry for two people before nailing a bag of Maltesers or a packet of biscuits.
Ludford’s relationship with food began to deteriorate after the death from cancer of his father in 2013. “I was unhappy, first of all, and I was bingeing on food and alcohol as a coping mechanism,” he says. “A lot of it was related to my dad, but I was also stuck in a rut and food was an easy way to make myself feel good.” By the time lockdown was introduced, he was severely obese, with a BMI of 40. (A healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9, according to the NHS.) “Sometimes I’d do crazy things,” he says. “If I was on the way to meet someone for dinner, I’d go to KFC on the way. And then I’d eat dinner as well.”
Then Covid-19 hit. Ludford was too scared of the transmission risk to order a takeaway. The pubs were not open. “I started cooking at home,” he says. “Soups, salads – healthy stuff.” He was furloughed and began to struggle with anxiety, in part related to the pandemic, but also related to his health. His dad had had a heart attack before he died, and Ludford began to panic that he would, too. The sudden death of a friend from a heart condition, in April, sent him to a dark place. “It was like all this anxiety I had been pushing away, about my health and my weight, suddenly opened a crack,” he says. “And, because I was on furlough, I had time to focus on it. Everything fell apart. My brain decided that this was my comeuppance: I was going to have a heart attack, as payback for the irresponsible lifestyle I’d been leading.”
Ludford spoke to a GP about his anxiety, who recommended exercise and referred him for counselling. So, he started walking: “2km became 5km became 10km,” he says. And he exercised to videos he found on YouTube. At first, he could not manage a single burpee, but after a few months, he was flinging himself on and off the floor with ease. “The exercise was the only thing that really helped me to get a handle on my anxiety,” he says. “Exercise kept the wheels on the bus.” Seven months on, Ludford has lost 34kg (5st 5lb) and is no longer severely obese. But the weight loss is secondary to his mental wellbeing – he feels like himself again. “Everything came together at the same time,” he says. “Lockdown was the trigger.”
While lockdown was a period of indulgence for many of us – who can blame anyone for looking at a world in freefall, with political leaders squabbling like children, and reaching for the biscuit tin? – the enforced stillness of 2020 gave some people the time and headspace to embrace a more active lifestyle. Freed from the shackles of the commute and the lure of late-night pub sessions, an overhaul was in reach. Fiona Gillison, a chartered psychologist and behaviour-change expert at the University of Bath, says: “The pandemic reduced the barriers that many people have to leading healthier lifestyles – by giving them more time at home or dedicated time to exercise.”
Gillison believes that the fact the government made exercise one of the only exemptions from the Covid-19 restrictions during lockdown helped reinforce the notion that it was a priority, even during a pandemic. “We were allowed out for one hour a day for exercise, and that was one of the only things we were allowed to do,” she says. “That’s quite strong public health messaging. In effect, the government was saying: ‘Look, this is worth leaving the house for; this is worth the risk.’” Exercise also became social: families traipsing out for walks together, friends meeting for a hike.
Plus, during lockdown, there was not much else to do. Sue Wild, 67, a retired midwife from Birmingham, says: “I thought to myself: what else am I doing? I might as well try to get fit.” Wild has never been an exercise fan: she completed the NHS’s Couch to 5K app a few years ago, for a bet, but it did not stick. This summer, for want of anything to do, she downloaded it again and started running once more. “It was strange,” she says. “I never enjoyed it before. But I think, because I’m not going out as much, it’s nice to have a bit of time to look around and feel like things are normal.”
The pandemic is more dangerous for older people, obese people and those with underlying health conditions. “I know that Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere,” says Wild, who is just outside the age bracket (70-plus) in which she would be most at risk from the virus. “So, I have to be the fittest that I can be. I just feel like, if I did get it, I’d want to give myself the best shot possible for a good recovery.”
She is not alone. A recent study from University College London, which tracked 5,395 people via a smartphone app, found that over-65s were among the most active of all the groups surveyed throughout lockdown and increased their physical activity levels the most once the lockdown restrictions were eased. It was also the only age group to become more active during the pandemic than beforehand.
In July, prompted largely by the prime minister’s spell in intensive care – Johnson believes he was hospitalised with the virus due to his weight – the government announced an anti-obesity strategy. (Critics pointed out that the measures did little to address the structural reasons for obesity, such as inequality.) The messaging appears to be working, at least for Ludford. “I am very aware of how obesity is a risk factor,” he says. “That was a big motivation – to get down to a healthy BMI.”
For Shae Eccleston, 42, a consultant from Dunstable in Bedfordshire, it was a way to sort out her chronic insomnia, not just for her own health, but so that she could be there for her family. Five members of her family fell ill with Covid-19 at the same time – her mum, her grandfather, her grandmother and two aunts. “I was doing a lot of supermarket shops and making sure they were taken care of,” she says. “I just knew that I could not afford to get sick. I had to be resting. I couldn’t afford to be knocked down as well.”
Before the pandemic, she averaged two to four hours’ sleep a night. “I’ve always been bad at sleeping. My mum says that, even when I was a baby, I was always awake. It was a good night, if I fell asleep before the sun came up,” she says. But her family’s brush with Covid-19 – thankfully, everyone pulled through – was a wakeup call. Now, she puts her phone on Do Not Disturb, listens to ASMR videos, and has made her bedroom a screen-free zone. (Previously, she would often work on her laptop in bed.) “I’ve been getting a good six hours’ sleep a night,” she says. “To other people, that’s nothing. But it’s huge for me.”
It is easier to form better habits if your lifestyle has been upended. “Covid disrupted all of our routines,” says Gillison. “When you have to create a new routine, your old habits are disrupted and you’re more in charge of how you shape your own life. That will play a role in why people may be embracing healthier behaviours.” Covid-19 acted as a jolt for many. Ludford had tried dry January and health kicks before, but nothing stuck. “Suddenly, going on as normal wasn’t an option,” he says. “Before, I’d been able to live a certain lifestyle. And then this big interruption came along.” Eccleston, too, thinks she would have continued in her old ways – late-night phone calls to friends, working in her bedroom until the early hours – were it not for the shock of lockdown. “Suddenly, everything changed and I got a new mindset,” she says.
When so much is out of your hands, exercise is something you can control. “There’s something about the sense of autonomy you get from exercise,” says Gillison. “You’re doing it for your own reasons, rather than because someone told you to.” With Ludford on furlough, exercise gave him a sense of drive and purpose. “I’ve felt so stuck this year,” he says. “You can’t plan ahead in your life the way you want to or are used to. Exercise has enabled me to focus on a series of goals that I can achieve.”
For many people, upping their exercise helped them deal with the stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic. “I know my own mental health quite well,” says Tom Firth, 33, a teacher from Yorkshire. “If I don’t do something productive with my day, I start to dislike myself.” Before lockdown, he often worked 12-hour shifts, treating the summer holidays as a period for recharging. “I’d think that I should be healthier, but I never had the time, so I just gradually ignored it and got more and more unfit,” he says.
In Firth’s defence, British people work some of the longest hours in Europe – an average of 42 hours a week in 2018, two hours more than the EU average and the equivalent of an extra two and a half weeks a year. Studies have shown that working longer hours is bad for your mental and physical health, contributing to physical inactivity and an increased risk of depression. In the early weeks of Covid-19, Firth took advantage of his downtime to watch “appalling” amounts of TV: “The entirety of Tiger King in an afternoon, that sort of thing.”
But he could feel his mental health deteriorating, so he got on his exercise bike. Firth set himself the goal of cycling 1,000 miles a month, tracking his miles on a spreadsheet. During the Tour de France, he cycled along; now, he watches Parks and Recreation on the bike. Firth credits his exercise regimen with giving him the resilience to get through the pandemic. He has also lost 20kg. “Exercising for an hour a day has done wonders for my mental health,” he says. “It releases all these lovely chemicals. It’s literally addictive.”
Will these habits stick when people return to their old lifestyles? Firth thinks so: even though the new school year has started, he is keeping to his routine. “Initially, I was only doing this because I had nothing to do,” he says. “But it went on for so long that it became a habit. And I’m proud of that.” The best way to make anything stick is to build it into your everyday routine. “It is much easier to do something over the long term if it becomes a habit,” says Gillison. “Habits occur when you’ve already done the decision-making, so the ‘cue’ to act becomes an automatic part of your day.”
She also recommends that people embark on diet or fitness changes with friends, for motivation and accountability. “Social support is key,” Gillison says. “Finding someone to do the activity with, in person or virtually, or even just showing interest and encouraging you to keep going, is helpful,” she says.
After gaining 3.6kg during lockdown, Wild has been following the NHS weight loss plan, a diet devised by doctors to help people lose weight at a safe and sustainable rate, with her husband. “I’ve tried to lose weight before, but it was a nightmare, making two meals and having all this tempting food around,” she says. “What’s been great this time is having my husband do it with me. I want to get fit for my older age,” Wild says. “I don’t feel old at all. But I know that Covid is worse if you’re older, and overweight.”
Gillison warns that health anxiety is not in itself enough to sustain a long-term change: it is easy to become complacent once the initial alarm has worn off. “The public will hear the message that Covid is more dangerous for the obese and it will get them out of the door a few times,” she says. “But unless they find something they enjoy doing, it will be a short-term fix.”
The most important way to make fitness a habit is to make it fun. “We are only able to make ourselves do something for a short amount of time,” says Gillison. “It’s hard to stick at something you find unpleasant, plus you don’t get the benefits in terms of the sense of wellbeing when you’re doing something you don’t like. So, if lockdown was a time of experimentation with various activities, pick the one you enjoyed.”
Ludford is confident that he won’t slip back into old ways. “I’ve seen such a huge change in my life,” he says. “Covid gave me the opportunity to focus on the things that were undermining my mental health. I’m not going to go back to how things were before. It’s been transformational.”