For adults ages 50-plus the impact of the pandemic has been tough, but most are committed to regaining control.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an adverse effect on many different levels, whether they be economic, social, or emotional. A recent study by AARP goes one step further and focuses on the pandemic's impact on maintaining a healthy lifestyle for adults ages 50-plus. Overall, among adults ages 50-plus, nearly half (45%) say their ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle over the past year was more difficult. This difficulty in maintaining a healthy lifestyle is consistent across younger and older adults.
Regaining Control Through Diet
One key component of maintaining a healthy lifestyle is diet. Across age groups, about half (48%) of adults ages 50-plus say their eating habits have not changed since the start of the pandemic. Further, one-third (32%) of older adults say they eat a little more or more healthy now than before the pandemic.
Looking at diet more closely, the survey asked respondents to indicate how many daily servings they had of each of the following food groups: vegetables, grain, protein, dairy, and fruit. We find one-fifth of adults ages 50-plus say they are eating less healthily today than at the start of the pandemic, even among those with the highest consumption of the recommended food group servings.
To further evaluate the impact of the pandemic on eating habits, the survey asked how eating habits changed for three less-healthy food groups: sweet snacks, salty snacks, and highly processed foods. Overall, more than a quarter (29%) of adults ages 50-plus say that in the past year they were eating more sweet snacks, while a fifth admitted that their diet had changed by eating more salty snacks (20%) and/or highly processed foods (18%). Top reasons cited for eating more snacks and processed foods were spending more time at home (57%) and watching TV/streaming (55%).
Regardless of which factors drive increased consumption during the height of the pandemic, more than half (55%) of these adults ages 50-plus are very concerned about their change in diet and want to make adjustments. One key bright spot from the survey is the commitment to new activities aimed at regaining a healthy lifestyle, especially changes in diet, as the vast majority are intent on maintaining these modifications a year from now.
Regaining Control Through Exercise
Another key component of maintaining a healthy lifestyle is exercise. As this research clearly shows, the pandemic has limited most older adults’ access to exercise. Not only is exercise a key way to maintain physical health, but it can also impact the ability to cope with stress.
For those who have found it more difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle, a decline in exercise appears to have been a contributing factor. More than a third (37%) of respondents said that they have devoted less time to exercise since the pandemic began. Even among those who say maintaining a healthy lifestyle over the past year has been easier, nearly two in 10 (18%) say they are devoting less time to exercise. These results highlight the challenges the pandemic has created for exercise among adults ages 50-plus and the important role that exercise plays in a healthy lifestyle.
Additionally, more than a third (43%) of adults ages 50-plus report that their stress levels have increased since the pandemic began. However, when asked to look six months ahead, one-third (34%) see their stress levels declining. Although many factors will contribute to the anticipated decline in future stress levels (e.g., increase social contact, vaccination rates, etc.), exercise is a key driver. For example, nearly half (47%) of those who see their stress levels declining in the next six months say better weather and the ability to exercise outside is a factor, and nearly one in five (17%) say being able to go back to the gym will help them reduce stress.
Adults ages 50-plus are optimistic about regaining control over their health, with many predicting an increase in exercise time and a reduction in stress over the next six months. However, at least some of this expectation is based on a COVID-free life. This expectation needs to be balanced with the likely reality that the virus is not going to disappear completely anytime soon and that some barriers to physical activity are likely to remain. In this evolving reality, those who want to engage in physical activity to help maintain a healthy lifestyle will have to keep an open mind and adapt to the limitations imposed by the pandemic. Adults ages 50-plus will benefit by exploring new types of exercise, adopting more flexible routines (e.g., time of day, indoors and outside) and experimenting with online exercise classes.
This survey was conducted by the nonpartisan and objective research organization NORC at the University of Chicago on behalf of AARP. For this national survey, data were collected using the AmeriSpeak Panel. AmeriSpeak, the probability-based panel of NORC, is designed to be representative of the U.S. household population.
A total sample of 1,903 adults with multicultural oversamples of African Americans/Blacks (462 total) and Hispanics/Latinos (446 total) were surveyed online and by telephone between April 27, 2021 and May 4, 2021. A portion of the multicultural samples came from the national survey sample. The survey was conducted in English and Spanish.