The Effects of Socioeconomic Status and COVID-19 on Physical Activity
Edited by: Jasleen Sekhon
A major public health concern is the lack of physical activity among its population. Globally, around 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men do not do enough exercise to stay healthy (1). Many factors contribute to lack of physical activity; socioeconomic status is one of those factors (2). Socioeconomic status (SES) refers to the social standing or class of an individual or a group. It is usually measured using the combination of income, occupation and education (3). The mechanisms behind SES differences in physical activity are not entirely understood but some theories exist (4).
Determinants that mediate the influence of SES on activity
It is important to recognize the perceived barriers faced by people from different SES. By identifying these limits, it will be possible to develop effective physical activity initiatives that will benefit people that may be disadvantaged. Some studies looking at individual influences have found that lack of money, lack of transportation, illness or disability, personality factors and coping styles help explain the differences of physical activity when it comes to SES (5). Among adults, other factors such as self-efficacy, availability of and access to physical activity facilities are potential reasons that could explain why people with lower SES tend to exercise less (6). To add, a favourable environment to exercise is not always equally accessible for those with a lower socioeconomic status (7). Studies also showed that people with a higher SES may have a greater sense of control over their exercise and their health as well as higher levels of support (8). Thus, access to both time and supplies for exercise and physical activity are not equitable across populations.
Impact of COVID-19 on SES and physical activity
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted physical exercise worldwide. Many people around the world had to practice social distancing, stay at home to self isolate and limit contact with other people (9). As such, fitness facilities and parks that lots of people use to stay active were closed (9). Not everyone was able to continue exercising in the midst of a global pandemic. Inequalities existed in physical activity before the pandemic as it relates to SES and other factors. However, the situation exacerbated the existing barriers. For instance, individuals of lower SES may have lost their jobs and needed to work a lot of temporary jobs to support themselves and their loved ones which limited their availability/desire to exercise (9). One recent study had some interesting findings. Using data from the University of Southern California Center for Economic and Social Research Understanding Coronavirus in America tracking survey, they assessed Americans’ attitudes and behaviours around the pandemic since March 2020 (9). They found that the pandemic has led to a significant increase in physical activity (9). In fact, the average number of days in which people exercised jumped from 2.06 in March to 3.7 in April and has remained stable since (9). However, the same study showed that the pandemic has aggravated the inequalities in physical exercise. The gaps between high vs low income and educated vs less educated widened substantially (9). The authors emphasized that policy interventions that address those differences in exercise can help minimize the health impact on disadvantaged communities. Ways to improve physical activity in low income communities
Rather than putting the burden on families to assure that children get enough exercise, there should be more activities integrated into schools and other places where kids go (10).
Building a community may be more relevant than building gyms
A study showed that people with low SES had higher chances of meeting exercise guidelines if they had bigger social networks and a higher amount of physically active people in those networks (11).
Health policy experts say that activity recommendations should be more context-sensitive (10).
People who don’t have cars could walk part of their bus route
People who commute to get groceries (because they live in a food desert) could use properly balanced bags to help strengthen their muscles
Supporting communities to reconnect with culturally/geographically relevant activities which can involve physical activity (10).
Different reasons can explain why some people are less physically active. A well-known factor is that socioeconomic status can be associated with participation in physical activity
Socioeconomic status (SES) refers to the social standing or class of an individual or a group.
Factors such as lack of transport, lack of money, self-efficacy, availability of and access to physical activity facilities, unfavourable environment are potential reasons that could explain why people with lower SES tend to exercise less
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted physical exercise worldwide.
One study showed that even though the pandemic led to an overall increase in physical activity, it has aggravated the inequalities in physical exercise. The gaps between high vs low income and educated vs less educated widened substantially
Policy interventions that address those differences in exercise can help minimize the health impact on disadvantaged communities
World Health Organization. (n.d.). Physical activity. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity#:~:text=Levels%20of%20physical%20activity%20globally&text=Worldwide%2C%20around%201%20in%203,physical%20activity%20to%20stay%20healthy.&text=Insufficient%20activity%20increased%20by%205,countries%20between%202001%20and%202016.
Active Living Research. Socio-Economic Status and Perceived Barriers to Physical Activity | Active Living Research. (n.d.). https://activelivingresearch.org/socio-economic-status-and-perceived-barriers-physical-activity#:~:text=Eight%20barrier%2Dto%2Dphysical%2D,%2Dlevel%20SES%2C%20or%20both.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Socioeconomic Status. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/socioeconomic-status.
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Penn L, Dombrowski SU, Sniehotta FF, et alParticipants’ perspectives on making and maintaining behavioural changes in a lifestyle intervention for type 2 diabetes prevention: a qualitative study using the theory domain frameworkBMJ Open 2013;3:e002949. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002949
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Sher, C., & Wu, C. (2021). Who Stays Physically Active during COVID-19? Inequality and Exercise Patterns in the United States. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 7, 237802312098771. https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120987710
Fitness advice ignores realities of life on the margins. CMAJ News. (n.d.). https://cmajnews.com/2020/01/10/exerciseguidelines-1095843/.
Child, S., Kaczynski, A. T., & Moore, S. (2017). Meeting Physical Activity Guidelines: The Role of Personal Networks Among Residents of Low-Income Communities. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53(3), 385–391. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2017.04.007