Story at a glance

  • A group of international researchers conducted a study on college students from spring 2019 through spring 2021.
  • Researchers found that students’ daily steps decreased and almost half were at risk of clinical depression.
  • The study said the estimated short term physical and mental health costs of the pandemic to be $2.6 trillion and $1.6 trillion, respectively.

Despite the medical advances of vaccines that have allowed for public spaces to reopen and for people to resume a sense of normalcy, a new study found that college students’ mental and physical health hasn’t rebounded.

A group of international scientists conducted a study on students attending the University of Pittsburgh from spring 2019 through spring 2021 and their results, published on Thursday, showed persistent impacts of the pandemic on physical activity and mental health. 

One year into the pandemic, researchers found that students’ daily steps decreased 35 percent, averaging about 6,300 per day compared to about 9,800 per day prior to the pandemic. Almost half of the student participants were at risk of clinical depression compared to a little over one-third prior to the pandemic, a 36 percent increase. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic led to unprecedented disruptions to nearly every facet of daily life. At the onset of the public health emergency, lockdowns and social-distancing measures suddenly altered the way people interacted, worked and attended school, breaking old habits and shaping new ones,” said researchers. 


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Researchers also noted a decline in the number of hours of sleep college students got, with visible fluctuations between 7 to 6.5 hours starting in February 2019. A steep decrease was observed in February 2020, but quickly rebounded in March and April. 

Mental health has been a struggle across age groups nationally, with a Kaiser Family Foundation poll revealing that about 4 in 10 adults during the pandemic reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. Prior to the pandemic, from January to June 2019, one in ten adults reported similar symptoms. 

“These long-lasting effects of the pandemic are worrisome. Since lifestyle and mental health did not rebound as the pandemic started to ease, it will be important to develop interventions to reduce sedentary habits and improve well-being” said Silvia Saccardo, co-author of the college student study, in a statement.

Saccardo and her fellow co-authors argued that understanding the persistence of the pandemic’s impacts on lifestyle and mental well-being is critical for informing policy. They estimated the short term physical and mental health costs of the pandemic to be $2.6 trillion and $1.6 trillion, respectively. 

Researchers warned that if lifestyle habits and mental well-being don’t rebound naturally as the pandemic eases, interventions may be required to help push people back to a sense of normalcy.


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Published on Dec 02, 2021