Teens playing volleyball.
Published on: May 12, 2021

Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been widely reported, but less is known about the indirect consequences on health-related behaviors. Researchers recently discovered that while there was a decline in physical activity in adolescents during stay-at-home orders, there were no changes in the frequency of substance use.

In recent editorial in JAMA Pediatrics, authors David Conroy, professor of kinesiology and human development & family studies at Penn State, and Sherry Pagoto, professor of allied health sciences in the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy, University of Connecticut, discussed research on how the pandemic affects adolescent activity levels and substance use.

Researchers sampled public high school students in Northern California to better understand how stay-at-home restrictions had unintended implications for health-related behaviors in youth. They found that, while physical activity decreased, substance use stayed level.

In the editorial, Conroy and Pagoto speculated that the observed decline in physical activity was likely a result of youth sports cancellations during stay-at-home orders and when online learning began, and adolescents were restricted from visiting friends. They interpreted the findings as an opportunity to rethink how families, schools, and communities approach physical activity promotion for teens. “A variety of physical activities, including but not limited to sports, should be promoted to assist adolescents in developing a physically active lifestyle that adapts when a single particular activity is disrupted,” said Conroy.

One remarkable finding was that physical activity dropped but substance use remained steady. “Typically these two behaviors ‘couple’, but in this instance they did not,” Conroy said. “Other studies have shown that people were more inactive during pandemic, but alcohol use generally increased. This is a very interesting finding, because our recent systematic review found that physical activity in adolescence is typically associated with greater alcohol use and reduced use of cannabis and tobacco. In these new data from teens during the pandemic, exercise does not appear to be associated with increased alcohol use or prevention of cannabis or tobacco use among teens.”

Researchers are now focused on how to make people more resilient to be able to handle these situations in future. “We need frame activity as something pleasant and fun versus a chore you have to do, and focus on the immediate rewards for changing behavior,” Conroy said.

Research in Conroy’s lab is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and American Institute for Cancer Research.