A rise in negative health behaviours – such as lack of sleep, exercise and an unhealthy diet – is linked to poorer mental health during the tightest restrictions of Scotland’s COVID-19 lockdown, a new study has confirmed.

Research led by the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), in partnership with Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) has concluded that these changes contributed to a higher negative mood and that maintaining, or even improving, health behaviours in a lockdown situation is key to sustaining positive mental health.

The study, funded by the Chief Scientist Office (CSO), also found a link between increased alcohol consumption when living with children, and a poorer diet if the person’s working status had been affected by COVID-19.

Husband and wife team Dr Christopher Hand, a lecturer in GCU’s Department of Psychology, and Dr Joanne Ingram, lecturer in the School of Education and Social Sciences at UWS, wanted to find out what changed in people’s lives when lockdown first started back in March.

The study found that:

  • Increased alcohol consumption was linked to living with children, but not to negative mood.
  • Poorer diet was linked to more-negative mood, and to changes to working status. Those who had changed their work status due to the COVID-19 pandemic reported that their diet had become unhealthier.
  • Poorer sleep quality was linked with more-negative mood, and with ‘shielding’ from the virus. Shielding was the only COVID-19-related factor which was associated with changes in sleep quality.
  • Being less physically active was related to more-negative mood and student status, with those studying full-time seeing a greater reduction in their physical activity.
  • Being more physically active was linked to having or suspecting COVID-19 infection within the household. Households where COVID-19 had been experienced or suspected were associated with increasing their physical activity.

 Co-author Dr Hand explained: “We looked at people’s living situations, their work or study commitments, who they were living with, and their family situation. We want to understand how lockdown would influence people’s health and wellbeing – ranging from changes to their sleep quality, how active they were, their diet, and alcohol consumption. We know that all of these things are interlinked, and we know that they can have powerful effects on mood.”

The large-scale study involved nearly 400 adults living in Scotland. Researchers said there was  clear evidence that lockdown led to negative changes in health behaviours, but they also found that the picture was complicated and that lots of people made positive, healthy changes during the first lockdown from March onwards.

 Dr Hand added: “We found that parents were more likely to be drinking a bit more than non-parents, but on the whole, changes to alcohol consumption weren’t clearly related to mood levels. Changes in physical activity and diet were really clearly linked to negative mood – people whose diet worsened and people who became a lot less active had worse moods.

 “The good news is that people who were able to maintain their pre-lockdown habits, or those who were able to make some healthy changes typically saw benefits reported sleeping better if they’d cut down their drinking, and typically had better mood if they had started eating a bit healthier or were being a bit more active.”

 “We are about to begin a replication of this study both at home in Scotland and with a comparison sample in Japan. Scotland and Japan have taken very different approaches to managing COVID-19, and it’ll be interesting to see how the two nations compare against each other in terms of how people respond to different restrictions.”