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Arnold School of Public Health

COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted health behaviors, anxiety in university settings

September 15, 2022 | Erin Bluvas,

The COVID-19 pandemic continued to affect health behaviors and anxiety among university faculty, staff and students even a year after its onset, according to new research. The study, which was published in the Journal of American College Health, found that negative impacts on physical activity, sedentary time and anxiety persisted for this population from the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 until a year later in 2021 when the research was conducted.

“College students experienced numerous negative effects from COVID-19, including lost job or internship opportunities and delayed graduations, which may have contributed to the increased anxiety and stress seen during the start of the pandemic,” says first author Etienne Thiria, who graduated in 2022 with a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering and led the project with support from a Magellan Scholar Award. “Similarly, college and university faculty and staff were likely experiencing negative effects of the pandemic as a result of changes to online teaching, challenges completing research activities and balancing increased work hours and home life.”

Initial studies confirmed increased levels of stress and anxiety across universities – something the authors believe to have further exacerbated negative changes to lifestyle behaviors. With their project, they aimed to assess whether these effects were temporary or if they continued after mandates were lifted and universities began adapting to new safety precautions (e.g., social distancing, mask wearing, online education).

The team, which included mentors Susan Steck (professor of epidemiology) and Christine Pellegrini (assistant professor of exercise science) along with two of their doctoral students, administered an anonymous online survey between February and April of 2021. The 661 respondents (525 students, 136 faculty/staff) answered questions about demographics, COVID-19 testing/vaccination, diet, physical/sedentary activity, sleep, mental health and changes in weight/BMI for both prior to March 7, 20202 (in hindsight) and at the time of the survey in 2021.

The researchers found increases in sedentary time and anxiety and decreases in physical activity and sleep duration – but no changes in diet quality – among students. Faculty/staff reported slight improvements in diet quality, but this group also experienced increases in sedentary time and anxiety. Both groups underwent changes in sleep patterns, including later onset and wake-up times. 

“We discovered that health behaviors tended to coincide among students, with more pronounced detriments to physical activity and increases in sedentary time and anxiety apparent in those who reported that their diet was less healthy or that they had gained weight since the start of the pandemic,” says Thiria. “Based on these findings, we recommend that universities consider promoting additional wellness programs aimed at mental and physical well-being to manage persistent negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”


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