Older adults exercised less during COVID-19. Covid-related built environment modifications such as one-way walking systems and social distancing may have made physical activity more difficult.

For the attention of: Healthy ageing communities and campaigns. City planners and urban designers. 

The problem: Physical activity is important to maintain older adults’ health, wellbeing, and independence, and this was particularly important during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. To slow the spread of COVID-19, built environment modifications were introduced in public areas such as one-way walking systems to enable social distancing, public toilet closures, and outdoor seating limitations. These modifications were intended to encourage safe physical activity but could have made outdoor walking and exercise more difficult for older adults.

What we did and why: We investigated whether COVID-related built environment modifications reduced older adults’ physical activity and increased their fear of falling. To assess this, we created an online survey using both closed and open-ended questions. This survey was completed by 282 older adults aged 65+.

What our study adds: We found older adults engaged in less physical activity during COVID-19, particularly those who were concerned about falling. Many older adults thought that COVID-related built environment modifications made exercise more difficult and created safety or accessibility issues, particularly public toilet closures. These built environment modifications were also associated with less physical activity.

We concluded that COVID-related built environment modifications made walking exercise more difficult, and possibly contributed to the reduced physical activity seen in older adults throughout COVID-19.

Implications for city policy and practice: We recommend that if similar modifications are required in the future, older adults’ needs must be better accommodated to avoid discouraging physical activity and compromising long-term health. This could include using roads to maximise the space available for walking, and prioritising safe access to public toilets and outdoor seating.

Full research article: Impact of COVID-19 on neighbourhood physical activity in older adults by Charlotte Hennah, Geraint Ellis & Michail Doumas