The fat is not in the fire, as the saying goes but it has settled well and truly on the bodies of Sri Lankans. Yes, the restriction to homes compelled by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has caused increased physical inactivity and weight gain among Sri Lankans, a study has found. The online cross-sectional survey had [...]


Pandemic restrictions see Lankans gaining weight: Study


The fat is not in the fire, as the saying goes but it has settled well and truly on the bodies of Sri Lankans.

Yes, the restriction to homes compelled by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has caused increased physical inactivity and weight gain among Sri Lankans, a study has found.

Prof. Ranil Jayawardena

The online cross-sectional survey had been conducted between May 27 and June 2, when Sri Lanka was in the throes of a lockdown, by Prof. Ranil Jayawardena, Piumika Sooriarachchi and Tormalli Francis.

Prof. Jayawardena is from the Department of Physiology and Ms. Francis (is a Research Assistant Health and Wellness Unit) of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. Ms. Sooriarachchi is studying for her PhD at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

Titled ‘Increased physical inactivity and weight gain during the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka: An online cross-sectional survey’, it has been published in the much-accessed ‘Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews’ of the Netherlands-based Elsevier publications in June. It is believed to be one of the largest online surveys conducted in the country.

“The questionnaire including socio-demographics and physical activity-related questions was distributed as Google forms through social media platforms (such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and also WhatsApp). There were 3,707 people in all 25 districts who responded,” he says, harking back to May as the country reached its COVID-19 peak in the third wave.

The profile of the 3,707 who responded was:

Mainly young adults of around 35 years of age, with the largest group being in the 26-30 years category.

59.6% were females.

The respondents were from all 25 districts, while the highest number was from Colombo, Gampaha and Kandy districts.

Among them the majority lived in rural areas – 40.1% (1,488); the city-dwellers were – 27.3% (1,011); and people living in municipal council areas were – 32.6% (1,208).

The survey group represented all ethnic groups.

Most respondents had a degree level (69.1% or 2,563) or tertiary level (25.6% or 948) education.

Employment status:

Piumika Sooriarachchi

Tormalli Francis

Employed – 2,336 (63.0%); Self-employed – 200 (5.4%); Unemployed – 272 (7.3%); Full-time students – 618 (16.7%); and Retired – 56 (1.5%).

Almost half the respondents (48.4% or 1,796) had a net monthly family income of more than Rs. 100,000.

Reiterating that the survey found an overall increase in physical inactivity such as reduced exercise, increased sitting time and screen time, Prof. Jayawardena pointed out that a considerable proportion of the population faced increased body weight.

He stressed that regular physical activity is a key public health behaviour as it has a remarkable impact on both mental and physical well-being. However, even before the pandemic, more than 50% of Sri Lankan adults were either inactive or had low levels of physical activity. This is while Sri Lanka has a high prevalence of obesity and obesity-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) because of people’s unique body composition with a higher body fat percentage at a lower body mass index (BMI). Therefore, the current COVID-19 pandemic may further worsen this situation.

Decreased daily exercise routine among young adults

Picking up sedentary behaviour, Prof. Ranil Jayawardena says that the majority of the young adults (31 to 40 years) reported a decreased daily exercise routine. The possible reasons for inactivity could be lack of equipment, insufficient spaces to exercise at home, gyms and other sports facilities being closed and being fearful of exposure to COVID-19.

However, he pointed out that people with higher income levels were less likely to report reduced exercise levels. This could be explained by the fact that these people are more likely to have access to their own exercise equipment at home and paid online exercise programmes, which might have helped them to keep to their exercise levels during the restrictions.

Prof. Jayawardena highlighted another important point – the time spent sitting and on screens seemed to be highest in the lower than higher age groups.

“The ‘screen’ and ‘sitting’ time may have increased due to the closure of educational institutions and online teaching. Youngsters may also be spending more time on social media platforms to communicate with their peers owing to social distancing,” he added.

The answer

Whenever there is a break in online sessions, walk around for a few minutes, do lifting with dumbbells or even bottles filled with water and avoid high-calorie snacks such as biscuits and beverages, recommends Prof. Jayawardena, adding that checking one’s weight on a weekly basis would act as a deterrent. In the rural areas, people could do a little gardening as a form of exercise.


The interesting as well as disturbing findings  

More than half of those who responded (52.4%) reported decreased exercise levels

82.7% had increased screen time.

An average weight gain of 3.61 kg was reported by 38.5%. There was a significant difference in weight gain between genders and ethnic groups.

63.5% of the participants reported that their sitting time had increased during the same period, while more than 80% reported an increase of screen time on television, cell phones and laptops.

Those from the Kurunegala district were more likely to report increased exercise when compared to the Colombo district. The area of residence did not seem to have had an influence on activity patterns.

The level of education showed no relation to any of the changes in activities. Unemployed participants had significantly higher odds for decreased exercise levels than the employed. Full-time students were almost two times more likely to have increased sitting time than the people who were employed. Similarly, people who engaged in domestic duties also had a significantly higher likelihood for increased sitting time but their odds were less with regard to the increased screen time.

Those with a monthly income of over Rs. 200,000 were significantly less likely to have reduced exercise levels.

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