Did social isolation during the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic have an impact on the lifestyles of citizens?

Epidemiol Prev. 2020 Sep-Dec;44(5-6 Suppl 2):353-362. doi: 10.19191/EP20.5-6.S2.137.


Objectives: to study the impact of social isolation, related to the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, on lifestyles in Italy, with particular reference to physical activity, alcohol consumption, smoking, and eating habits. Moreover, to investigate the association between lifestyle changes during the pandemic and sociodemographic characteristics.

Design: epidemiological investigation based on a cross-sectional study.

Setting and participants: between April 21st and June 7th 2020, an electronic questionnaire to collect information on physical activity, alcohol consumption, smoking, and eating habits during the period of home containment was made available on the web. Respondents were recruited through non-probabilistic snowball sampling. The link to the electronic questionnaire was disseminated through institutional websites, social networks (Facebook, Twitter), and messaging systems such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and SMS. A total of 10,758 interviews were collected, of which 7,847 (73%) were complete for a minimum set of indicators (age, gender, and area of residence).

Main outcome measures: reduction of physical activity, increase in alcohol consumption, increase in cigarette smoking, increase in consumption of unhealthy foods (processed meat, red meat or desserts) without increasing healthy foods (vegetables, legumes or whole grains) and, vice versa, increase in consumption of healthy foods without increasing unhealthy foods.

Results: the population under study consists of 7,847 people with a mean age of 48.6 years (standard deviation: 13.9). Most of respondents are women (71.3%), 92.5% have a high school or university degree and 91% live in Northern Italy. During home containment, 56% of interviewees reported they had reduced the time devoted to physical activity. In particular, this happened among older people and those living in large cities. More than 17% of respondents increased their alcohol consumption, especially men, those highly educated and those living in large urban centres. Older age and residence in the Southern Italy represent, instead, protective factors for this outcome. Among smokers, 30% increased cigarette consumption during the period of home containment, on average of 5.6 cigarettes per day. A small proportion of former smokers (0.6%) resumed smoking. With regard to eating habits, 3 out of 10 respondents (29.9%) reported an inappropriate eating behaviour (increasing unhealthy food without increasing healthy ones). This behaviour was less frequent among men (adjusted Prevalence Ratio 0.80, p=0.005). A lower percentage of respondents (24.5%) increased the consumption of healthy foods without increasing the consumption of unhealthy ones.

Conclusions: the results of this survey show that social isolation during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has had an impact on citizens' behaviours. In particular, it was found a noteworthy increase in sedentariness, alcohol consumption, and tobacco smoking. A meaningful proportion of respondents reported a worsening of eating habits, especially among women. However, for each of the behavioural risk factors investigated, small proportions of respondents with resilient attitudes were also found, namely, capable of taking advantage of social isolation for improving their daily habits. Studying changes in lifestyles during a pandemic, identifying population groups most at risk of adopting unfavourable behaviours, is a useful tool for policy makers to plan targeted and effective public health interventions.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; lifestyles; social isolation; web-based survey.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology
  • COVID-19 / prevention & control*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diet, Healthy
  • Energy Intake
  • Exercise
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Italy / epidemiology
  • Life Style*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pandemics*
  • Physical Distancing*
  • Quarantine*
  • SARS-CoV-2*
  • Sedentary Behavior
  • Smoking / epidemiology
  • Social Isolation*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Vulnerable Populations
  • Young Adult