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A YEAR OF LOCKDOWN

From top to toe: How a year of lockdown has changed our bodies

From poor posture at the kitchen table to anxious nights of teeth-grinding, Sophie Gallagher finds the virus isn’t the only danger to our health

Wednesday 24 March 2021 11:56 GMT
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It’s been a full 12 months since the lockdown in England began, and despite Boris Johnson’s claim that we could “turn the tide” in 12 weeks, the stay at home order continues. Even if you have physically avoided the virus - it is estimated 4.3 million people in the UK tested positive in the past year - lockdown could still be taking its toll on your body. As they say, the body keeps the score.

Many of us are still working from home, at kitchen tables or in bedrooms on ill-suited furniture,  fine as a temporary stop gap but not what we’d have opted for if we’d known it would be a year. The pandemic has also, largely, made us more sedentary - with no commute and a government-mandated requirement to stay at home reducing our daily activity. Forgetting the mental health implications of this change, how has a year behind closed doors altered our bodies physically?

To begin with, many of us tried to embrace our new routines by endeavouring to get fit: data shows that downloads of the Couch to 5k app skyrocketed between March and June 2020 to almost one million - a 92 per cent increase on 2019. But by lockdown three, two fifths (40 per cent) of people told a UCL study they were exercising far less, and watching more TV. 

Professor Mark Tully, professor of Public Health and Director of the Institute of Mental Health Sciences, Ulster University, tells The Independent that lots of these short-term health issues were overlooked for crisis management: “In the ‘emergency’ responses we have been through – the longer term effects are not addressed. Now is the time to start planning for a health service that promotes preventative health and not just treating disease.”

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So where does this leave us? How have our bodies changed indefinitely? Is there any way back or will we return to our former selves once lockdown is over? We break down the impact on every part of your body from the implications for your brain to gaining weight, losing muscle, back and neck aches and pains, skin conditions, and not forgetting the all important quality of our sleep.

Brain

Early reports by Mind found that more than half of adults and two thirds of young people said their mental health had gotten worse during the lockdown. A Mental Health Foundation survey concluded that almost a quarter of adults felt lonely as well.

Boredom was a major problem for young people’s brains with a study from Imperial University London finding 30 per cent of young people were experiencing poor mental health and research published by global children’s charity Plan International UK revealing that 40 per cent of girls felt their mental health had worsened since lockdown was established.

The consequence of this virtual life is that we are putting huge strain on our attentional systems

Richard Morris, professor of neuroscience at Edinburgh University says there are also considerations about how lockdown is impacting our attention span. “For those of us who have been spared [Covid] and are merely in lockdown, my money is on it being attention that is the problem. For many of us, perhaps most, screen time will have zoomed up. The consequence of this virtual life is that we are putting huge strain on our attentional systems.”

And people are increasingly turning to poor coping mechanisms to deal with poor mental health: Drinkaware revealed 22 per cent of people were drinking more since lockdown began and two in five (38 per cent) of people on furlough and a third (33 per cent) of parents with at least one child under 18 are drinking more alcohol since the start of lockdown.

Eyes

If you were spending lots of time in front of screens pre-pandemic, then having your whole social life moved onto a laptop was bound to make things worse. An Ofcom study in August 2020 found a surge in UK screen time with people spending an average of six hours per day online. Other studies elsewhere in Europe had similar findings. 

Professor Chris Hammond, chair of ophthalmology at King’s College London tells The Independent that although there is no evidence this will damage eyesight in adults long-term, it does cause other well-recorded issues such as dry eyes. “This is probably due to reduced blinking with the concentration and staying indoors,” he says.

However there are greater concerns about the impact in children of more screen time. “The risk of becoming short-sighted is strongly linked to lower amounts of time outdoors and more time on devices, and obviously this has been the case in lockdown. A study of over 100,000 children in China in June 2020, showed much higher rates of myopia in the youngest children (aged six to eight in this study) than the previous five years of measurements,” he says.

Skin

Lockdown has caused waves of different skin concerns: early on doctors were keen to stress that people should take Vitamin D supplements because we were getting less sunlight on our skin than usual. Then came the intense handwashing period when many were suffering dry cracked skin on their hands. Now skin concerns have shifted to being mask-related, with a rise in so-called Maskne - acne caused by the increased wearing of masks.

The skin is an incredibly dynamic organ, and it can bounce back very quickly

Dr Martin Wade, dermatologist at London Real Skin and The London Skin and Hair Clinic, says many of the problems are routine-related: “The change in lifestyle has had an effect on people’s skin. For some, they may have shifted their daily routine, be exposed to less sunlight, more central heating, neglected the necessary skincare, and may not be maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. All of which can negatively impact the skin.”

Dr Wade also says the stress of the situation is causing skin problems to worsen. “Patients who suffer with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, along with the hair condition alopecia, can all be aggravated by stress from the impact of lockdown,” he said.

For those experiencing excessive “Maskne”, Dr Wade says he has advised his patients to swap out mask for a face visor wherever possible to allow the skin to breathe. “It is of course important to follow the guidelines but by following simple practises such as giving your skin a break every few hours when you are not around other people, can avoid this. The skin is an incredibly dynamic organ, and it can bounce back very quickly.”

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Teeth

A study in November found that there had been a significant rise in jaw pain and jaw-clenching in the daytime and teeth-grinding at night - symptoms often caused by anxiety and stress. According to researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) women suffered more from these symptoms more than men, and that 35- to 55-year-olds suffered most.

For example, prevalence of jaw clenching and bruxism [when you grind, gnash or clench your jaw] increased to 47 per cent from its pre-pandemic level of 35 per cent. Jaw clenching in the daytime shot up from around 17 per cent to 32 per cent. Similarly, teeth grinding at night rose from 10 per cent to 36 per cent.

Back and neck

For anyone who has been working at a temporary desk setup for a year now, you will know the pain that it can cause for your neck and back. Roger Frampton, a movement coach and host of TED talk “Why sitting down destroys you”, says: “The so-called elephant in the room isn’t necessarily lockdown but technology. [It] brings added comforts such as online shopping and the ability to connect with anyone in the world at touch of the button [so we don’t move].”

Frampton says there are two particular issues that sitting still, in chairs, for long periods of time causes. The first is the staticness. “It doesn’t matter what position you sit in, it’s the length of time we are in that position. Our bodies are evolved for movement. Everything about the body is wired for this.

It doesn’t matter what position you sit in, it’s the length of time we are in that position

“The second point here is the lack of variety. If you see a young child playing on the floor what you will notice is them moving between a large variety of positions repetitively. The key for good movement and a free moving body is variety.”

Frampton says the “postural habits” we develop on a daily basis are the cause of pain in the body. “If you sit with one leg crossed over the other you’ll notice it’s always the same leg. This is a postural habit which will repetitively twist your hips out of line.” Frampton warns that lockdown and using technology more and more will see these pains and aches increase.

Professor Tully says he is “concerned”that older adults - especially those who have been shielding or in lockdown for longer than the rest of us - “may have lost some of the physical function which is necessary to engage in the usual activities of daily living”.

Weight and muscles

For many people, being forced to stay at home has meant an automatic increase in sedentary behaviour, along with the closure of gyms and passing time with activities like baking.

A study from King’s College London and Ipsos Mori found 48 per cent of respondents said they had put on weight during lockdown, despite Boris Johnson’s drive to tackle obesity. Another survey of more than 7,700 adults in April found that 27 percent reported weight gain at the start of the pandemic, a figure that increased to 33 percent in those who were already obese. 

“Working from home has meant many people are spending longer at computers as the lines between home and work are blurred,” says Professor Tully. This increase in WFH has led to experts coining the term “dead butt syndrome”, which might sound familiar. 

Professor Tully says: “Studies that have enforced bed rest for periods of time are extreme examples of what a lack of physical activity can cause. They show that neuromuscular function (muscle strength, explosive muscle force, muscle mass) is lost at a rate of over three per cent per day starting even within the first few days.”

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Sleep

Studies have shown that during lockdown we have been sleeping longer hours in general, but the quality of sleep has been worse. In one study nearly two-thirds (63 per cent ) of people said their sleep had been worse. Lisa Artis, deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity, says: “The stress and anxiety around lockdown has left many people struggling with their sleep. 

“This is down to a number of reasons including working from home, home-learning children, isolation, limited exercise, excessive screen time, financial worries and job security, health anxiety and general uncertainty. It has resulted in people struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep or waking early. We’ve also seen more reports about vivid dreams too.”

Artis says working from home has played a major role in this poor sleep. “Checking emails or even working too close to bedtime could see you having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Have a designated area for working and where possible commit to using it only during work hours. And not in the bedroom, which should be used only for sleep and sex.”

As well as being available all hours when WFH, because we are now not required to leave the house, we get less exposure to sunlight, which messes with our circadian rhythm. “We need natural light to help reset our internal body clocks, which is we recommend opening curtains as soon as you wake and if possible, going outside for a brisk morning walk.”

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