Has the COVID-19 pandemic made young adults less fit?

A recent Scientific Reports study evaluates the long-term impact of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection, the causal agent of the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, on the physical fitness in young adults.

Study: The long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on physical fitness in young adults: A historical control study. Image Credit: Aleksandar Malivuk / Shutterstock.com


Physical fitness has been associated with a wide range of health benefits, including a reduced risk of metabolic disorders, cardiovascular events, and overall mortality rates. Considering these health benefits, regular exercise and physical activity have been recommended across all age groups.

SARS-CoV-2 is highly contagious and has rapidly spread worldwide, resulting in the COVID-19 pandemic. To contain the pandemic, many national governments implemented pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical strategies. Some of these strategies, such as nationwide lockdowns, made it challenging to maintain optimal physical fitness, as they often increased sedentary behavior and decreased physical activity levels.

Reduced physical activity and exercise lead to increased weight gain and obesity. Several COVID-19 mitigation measures have also impacted the mental health of individuals, particularly young adults. Although these effects could be linked with fitness levels at a base level, few studies have assessed the long-term impact of COVID-19 on physical fitness.

About the study

The current study evaluated the long-term longitudinal changes in physical fitness parameters among young adults one year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. All relevant data were obtained from two centers located in Central and Central-East China. Participants were recruited from the Chinese Medical College, Hunan, and the Medical College of Jinhua Polytechnic, Zhejiang. 

Both institutions conducted the inaugural Chinese National Student Physical Fitness Standard (CNSPFS) battery between December 1, 2019, and January 20, 2020, before the national lockdown was initiated. A follow-up study was conducted one year later, during which the CNSPFS battery was conducted between December 1, 2020, and January 20, 2021. Participants with pre-existing medical conditions were excluded from the cohort.

A historical group was established, which comprised the physical fitness data of students who enrolled in either of the two universities in 2018. For this group, the first CNSPFS battery was performed one year before the study, between 2018 and January 20, 2019.

Fitness scores were assessed based on multiple open-air track and field performances, such as a 50-meter sprint, a standing long jump, an 800-meter run for females, a 1000-meter run for males, timed one-minute sit-ups for females, pull-ups for males, a sit and reach test, and vital lung capacity tests. These tests allowed the researchers to assess aerobic endurance, anaerobic capacity, muscular strength, explosive power, flexibility, and pulmonary function.

Study findings

A total of 5376 individuals were recruited, and the mean age of the participants was 18 years. Of these individuals, 2,239 were assigned to the study group and 3,137 to the control.

Most study participants in both groups were female and belonged to urban backgrounds. There was no significant difference in weight, body mass index (BMI), height, or socioeconomic status between the study and control group. A significant difference was observed between the two groups in terms of baseline sit-and-reach tests and one-minute sit-ups.

One year after a pandemic-induced lockdown, a significant reduction in various physical fitness parameters, such as explosive power, aerobic and anaerobic capacities, and weight, was observed. These changes could have important implications on health, particularly in patients with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as this decrease in physical fitness could increase premature mortality risk.

Consistent with previous studies, the current study highlights a significant decrease in fitness trajectories between lockdown-affected and unaffected groups. This decline in physical fitness is due to a combination of factors, including disruption of physical activity routines, pandemic-induced psychological stressors, and altered dietary habits.


The current study has some limitations, including the analysis of a focused group of individuals, which might limit the generalizability of the findings for other populations. Another limitation of this study is the presence of inherent differences in the control and study groups.

Despite these limitations, the current study provides a novel approach to assess the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on physical fitness. Pandemic-induced restrictions, including limits on outdoor activities and closure of fitness facilities, significantly affected physical activity levels, particularly among younger adults. This potential decrease in physical fitness can significantly exacerbate health risks.

The study findings emphasize the importance of continually promoting the benefits of physical activity during and beyond pandemics to prevent long-term adverse effects related to health.

Journal reference:
  • Ripley-Gonzalez, J. W., Zhou, N., Zeng, T., et al. (2023) The long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on physical fitness in young adults: A historical control study. Scientific Reports 13(1);1-10. doi:10.1038/s41598-023-42710-0
Dr. Priyom Bose

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Dr. Priyom Bose

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.


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