top of page

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

Results from "Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour: A Qualitative Study in a Canadian City"

Petersen, JA, Naish, C, Ghoneim, D, Cabaj, JL, Doyle-Baker, PK, & McCormack, GR


COVID-19 Circumstances

It has been over a year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus disease a pandemic. During this time Canadians have taken steps to reduce the spread of the virus, including restrictions on travel, practicing social distancing, and often self-isolating requirements (1). Additionally, people have had to manage the intermittent mandatory closures of educational and daycare facilities, non-essential businesses, and both private and public recreation facilities. These changes have the potential to impact peoples’ daily physical activity (2). In a recent Canadian study, a decrease in moderate-to-vigorous physical activities amongst a sample of adults was observed, even though many were still achieving the recommended amount of daily physical activity (3). To maintain physical activity, people may shift to alternative forms of physical activity to achieve the benefits of their pre-pandemic routines (4, 5). The circumstances of COVID-19 are unique and offer insight into how people adapt their physical activity and health behaviours during unforeseen challenges to their movement and established routines. A recent study explored how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and perceptions of health among adults in a Canadian city.

Adapting routines, changing activities, and balancing life

Between June and October of 2020, 12 adults living in north central Calgary were interviewed via telephone or videoconferencing. Participants were asked to describe how their physical activity and perceptions of health had changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic health response and what they had found challenging as they navigated this experience. Through these interviews four main themes were identified that capture the experiences of participants: (1) Disruption to Daily Routines; (2) Changes in Physical Activity; (3) Balancing Health, and; (4) Family Life.

Disruption to Daily Routines: Participants described how they adapted to the public health restrictions and established a ‘new normal’. Some participants experienced unanticipated benefits due to gaining more time in their day since the start of the pandemic.

Changes in Physical Activity: Restrictions and closures of recreational facilities meant that participants were unable to partake in their usual activities and instead had to find alternative activities. This included taking up new outdoor activities, trying home-based fitness routines, and exploring more of Calgary and the surrounding areas.

Balancing Health: Many participants found it challenging to protect themselves from the virus and follow public health restrictions while maintaining other aspects of their health, such as mental health. Other participants highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to attain more balance in their lives and let go of pressures experienced prior to the pandemic.

Family Life: Participants explained they had appreciated being able to spend better quality time with their families, but also discussed concerns and challenges related to parenting during the pandemic and managing the health of their children, especially for parents with young children.

These findings demonstrate that the COVID-19 public health emergency response measures have impacted daily routines and physical activity. Closures of recreational facilities required participants to adapt their physical activity routines and find alternative activities. Some participants were able to make shifts in their activity that they enjoyed, while others were unable to find suitable alternatives. Similarly, some participants utilized the extra time they had gained during the pandemic to reflect on their health and how they balance physical activity with their work or school commitments. Others struggled to achieve balance in the COVID-19 context, with many participants describing negative impacts on their mental health. As emergency public health measures continue to alter the daily lives of adults, it is important to develop strategies that support adults with adapting their physical activity routines to reduce the negative impacts of recreation facility closures (e.g., increased investment in outdoor spaces).

Suggested Citation:

Petersen JA, Naish C, Ghoneim D, Cabaj JL, Doyle-Baker PK, McCormack GR. Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour: A Qualitative Study in a Canadian City. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021; 18(9): 4441. DOI:

Written by Calli Naish, BAS; Graphic by Calli Naish and Dalia Ghoneim, MPH, CSEP-CEP

Posted on May 4, 2021



  1. Government of Alberta. Help prevent the spread. [accessed April 27, 2021]. 2021.

  2. Chen, P., Mao, L., Nassis, G. P., Harmer, P., Ainsworth, B. E., & Li, F. Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV): The need to maintain regular physical activity while taking precautions. Journal of sport and health science; 2020. 9(2), 103-104.

  3. Rhodes, R.E.; Liu, S.; Lithopoulos, A.; Garcia-Barrera, M.A. Correlates of perceived physical activity transitions during the COVID-19 pandemic among Canadian adults. Appl. Psychol. Health Well-Being 2020, 12, 1157–1182.

  4. Chtourou, H.; Trabelsi, K.; H’mida, C.; Boukhris, O.; Glenn, J.M.; Brach, M.; Bentlage, E.; Bott, N.; Shephard, R.J.; Ammar, A.; et al. Staying physically active during the quarantine and self-isolation period for controlling and mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic overview of the literature. Front. Psychol. 2020, 11, 1–11.

  5. Kaur, H.; Singh, T.; Arya, Y.K.; Mittal, S. Physical Fitness during the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Qualitative Enquiry. Front. Psychol. 2020, 11, 1–10.


bottom of page