Surprising lessons in physical well-being from South Africa’s lockdowns

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Surprising lessons in physical well-being from South Africa’s lockdowns

South Africa’s first two COVID-19 lockdowns imposed harsh restrictions on outside movement, but instead of a decrease in exercise and physical health, we saw the opposite. Here’s a deep dive into that data.

During one of the harshest lockdowns in the world in March 2020, enterprising South Africans exercised 8.2% more than they did prior to lockdown, when they had unlimited access to gyms, the streets, and sports grounds. 

We know this because of data collected from 231 members of a private medical aid scheme between August 2019 to June 2021. All data collected for this analysis was anonymised, studied only at a population level, and accessed through consent granted via the Elevate Me Wellness Portal. By looking at trends from this cohort of active pre- and post-COVID-19 users, we can showcase how COVID-19 and its harsh lockdowns impacted real South Africans. (We presented these findings at the Foresight Dialogue Series 2021: Part 3.)

With gyms and sports grounds closed, and even exercise outside on the streets forbidden, the expected results were to see exercise and fitness levels decrease overall. 

Instead, over a two-year period, the opposite happened. 

Fig 1. A summary of what we saw.
Fig 2. Our conclusions.

Mind over matter 

Healthy living and exercise are even more important during times of forced inactivity and prolonged stationary periods. As a 2020 study explains, “During the current pandemic and in the presence of limited freedom of movement, sustained physical activity is made feasible by accessing online tools and resources, essentially reducing vulnerability to existing cardiovascular health concerns.”  

In addition to this, gamification and hyper-personalisation are effective in driving sustained behavioural improvements in physical activity and well-being. “Integrated health and fitness data enable proactive engagement with one’s wellness journey,” passionately explains Matan Abraham, our CEO.

“By keeping people engaged in the right ways, they can stay continuously motivated regardless of the forces impacting their lives, and turn an otherwise difficult chore into a fun and fulfilling part of their daily lives.” 

Matan Abraham, CEO of Elevate

Popular fitness app Strava saw similar results in the UK, with workouts increasing by 13%. The BBC’s expert, Dr Charlotte Hilton of the British Psychological society, said, “Because of the social restrictions that COVID-19 brings, more people may be turning to online exercise communities and apps to enhance their connectedness to other like-minded people who enjoy exercise.

These online communities also help hold people accountable for their actions, and provide incentives and points that gamify exercise and make it easier to turn fitness into a habit. 

Added to this, less rigidity and more flexible schedules allowed people to exercise when it suited them – perhaps first thing in the morning, when they’d normally be commuting to school and work, or at 5pm, or even over lunchtime. This ability to be more creative in achieving goals allowed more people to reach and sustain their fitness goals. 

Our main takeaway 

What we can see from this targeted study of Elevate Me Wellness Portal user’s data is that users improved their ability to meet their goals of:

  1. sustaining more vigorous and less moderate workout sessions and exercise; and
  2. reaching 150 moderate or 75 vigorous minutes of activity a week.

This is despite being restricted to less sustained natural movement through the day, coupled with increased isolation. The main observed driver of these findings is that we saw users perform a greater variety of, and more creative, exercise routines during lockdowns, such as more home workouts replacing traditional runs, cycles, and swims.

This trend has persisted even after lockdowns have eased, which points to our users achieving greater empowerment over their exercise routines – a strong sign that these habits can be successfully maintained going forward. This creativity and empowerment to exercise on their own terms also mean fewer barriers to sustained fitness going forward, such as membership fees, commuting, and even cold weather.

Through the Elevate Me Wellness Portal, we have also seen the power of gamification and rewards! If done smartly, these can keep people engaged, motivated, and connected. The risk of digital fatigue should not be overlooked, however – so we are acutely aware that gamification can only work in the long term if it is backed by continuously providing value.

All of the above indicate that through harnessing your data, you can take better control of your physical well-being in a way that is meaningful for you, and find insights that help your overall wellness.

Sign up for a 90-day no-strings-attached FREE trial of the Elevate Me Wellness Portal!

The Elevate Me Wellness Portal is usually only available for Elevate Life policyholders or members of our growing network of partner medical aid schemes.

We are currently offering full unrestricted access to anyone (18 years or older residing in South Africa) for a 90-day no-strings-attached free trial, with no payment details requested. Simply sign-up at https://portal.elevate.co.za and activate as many of the four data dimensions as you like (My Wearables, My Healthcare, My Financials, and My Credit), linking your personal data sources securely – with you in full control (no third-party access given). We give you full visibility of your data in one place, and use this integrated data to set you monthly, personalised wellness goals – drawing from rich behavioural data that is proven to support your health and longevity. The more data you link, the more benefit you can derive for your holistic wellness. This is about you and empowering you to improve your wellness through AI and the power of your data.

For more information on unlocking the power of your data, please see our earlier blog post: Taking back the power of your most valuable resource.

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