Life in lockdown: a qualitative study exploring the experience of living through the initial COVID-19 lockdown in the UK and its impact on diet, physical activity and mental health.

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Background In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK imposed a national lockdown prompting change to daily routines. Among behaviours impacted by the lockdown, diet and physical activity may be particularly important due to their association with mental health and physical health. The aim of this study was to explore people’s experiences of how lockdown impacted their physical activity, dietary behaviours and mental health, with a view to informing public health promotion. Methods This phenomenological qualitative study used semi-structured telephone interviews. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Thematic analysis was conducted, guided by the Framework Approach. Results Forty participants (28 female) completed an interview (mean duration: 36 min) between May and July 2020. The overarching themes identified were (i) Disruption (loss of routines, social interaction and cues to physical activity) and (ii) Adaptation (structuring the day, accessing the outdoor environment, finding new ways for social support). The disruption to daily routines altered people’s cues for physical activity and eating; some participants spoke of comfort eating and increased alcohol intake in the early days of lockdown, and how they consciously tried to change these when restrictions lasted longer than first anticipated. Others spoke of adapting to the restrictions using food preparation and meals to provide both routine and social time for families. Disruptions from the closure of workplaces resulted in flexible working times for some, allowing for physical activity to be built into the day. In later stages of restrictions, physical activity became an opportunity for social interaction and several participants reported intending to continue to replace sedentary means of socialising (e.g., meeting in cafes) with more active, outdoor activities (e.g., walking) once restrictions were lifted. Staying active and building activity into the day was seen as important to support physical and mental health during the challenging times of the pandemic. Conclusions Whilst many participants found the UK lockdown challenging, adaptations to cope with the restrictions presented some positive changes related to physical activity and diet behaviours. Helping people sustain their new healthier activities since restrictions have lifted is a challenge but presents an opportunity for public health promotion.
Original languageEnglish
Article number588
Number of pages12
JournalBMC Public Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 29 Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

This project was unfunded.

Data Availability
The datasets used and analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Funding Information:
Thank you to all participants who kindly gave up their time to talk to us during the COVID-19 lockdown.


  • COVID-19
  • Diet
  • Lifestyle behaviours
  • Lockdown
  • Mental health
  • Physical activity
  • Qualitative

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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