A View from Tasmania: Has the pandemic influenced health and health behaviour?

Over the past four months humankind has endured a combination of forced challenges and changes that few in history have experienced. Underlying the need for these constraints is arguably the cornerstone to our existence – health. Amongst all the uncertainty, unpredictability, panic, and novelty that has become part of a newfound daily routine for many, perhaps individuals and broader society have had time to reflect upon health and its importance. Moreover, could it be that what we have lived through in recent months might actually present an opportunity to engage with our health and consider behaviour change? 

Within the Australian context, most parts of the country have had restrictions put in place. Interestingly, these restrictions have instigated a noticeable increase in physical activity behaviours such as bike riding, rollerblading, scooting, running, walking (including dog walking). Yes, there has been substantial modification in how many people have been dedicating their time; resulting in physical activity, recreation, and leisure activities being observable in streets, parks, courts, and on tracks. There are multiple benefits to this observable zest for movement in the outdoors, such as:

  • Family engagement through physical activity; connecting, communicating, and spending time together.
  • Breaking the cycle of being at home and staying at home; physical activity has proven to be a remedy for emotional and mental health stimulation and mindset.
  • Establishing new weekly and daily routines that feature physical activity as a regular component; in some cases, providing a foundation for planning around.
  • The development of fitness and fundamental movement skills through activities such as cycling, running, skating, scooting, and play; thus, promoting lifelong physical literacy through challenging balance, coordination, reaction time, agility, decision-making, and controlled risk taking.
  • Not relying on motorised vehicles for all travel. This has been confronting for many due to habitually relying on cars, however restrictions have forced this default behaviour to be tested.

Despite the broad and far-reaching negativity that has been portrayed by popular media since February, the benefits listed above have contributed to several positive outcomes; these are:

  • A realisation that we do have time for physical activity.
  • Reports that nationally bicycle sales have increased significantly, in some cases up to 150 – 200%.
  • Environmental health – the decrease in car use has dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Social health – physical activity has provided opportunities for people to come together, interact, and maintain relationships.

As the month of June comes to an end and restrictions ease, it is visible that Australians are reverting to their old routines and previously formed behaviours. Once again, the roads are filled with cars, rush and panic accompany school and work travel, urban noise has returned, and sadly there is less human movement in the outdoors. So, in spite of the conspicuous motivation for people to value their health during the pandemic I now find myself asking “is health important to people” and “what is required to cement health behaviour change”?   

Dr Casey Mainsbridge is Director of Student Engagement and Lecturer in Health and Physical Education at the College of Arts, Law, and Education, University of Tasmania.


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