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

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

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


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 in all age groups.

SARS-CoV-2 is highly contagious and has spread rapidly throughout the world, giving rise to 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 difficult to maintain optimal physical fitness, often increasing sedentary behavior and decreasing physical activity levels.

Reduced physical activity and exercise cause weight gain and obesity. Various COVID-19 mitigation measures have also impacted people’s mental health, particularly young adults. Although these effects could be related to fitness levels at a basic level, few studies have evaluated the long-term impact of COVID-19 on fitness.

About the study

The current study evaluated 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-eastern China. Participants were recruited from Chinese Medical College, Hunan, and Jinhua Polytechnic Medical College, Zhejiang.

Both institutions held the inaugural battery of the China National Physical Fitness Standard for Students (CNSPFS) between December 1, 2019 and January 20, 2020, before the national lockdown began. A follow-up study was conducted one year later, during which the CNSPFS battery was administered 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 university in 2018. For this group, the first battery of the CNSPFS was carried out one year before the study, between 2018 and 20 January 2019.

Fitness scores were evaluated based on multiple outdoor track and field performances, such as a 50-meter sprint, a standing broad jump, a women’s 800-meter run, a men’s 1000-meter run, squats. timed one minute. push-ups for women, pull-ups for men, a sit-and-reach test, and vital lung capacity tests. These tests allowed researchers to evaluate aerobic endurance, anaerobic capacity, muscle strength, explosive power, flexibility, and lung function.

Study findings

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

The majority of study participants in both groups were women and belonged to urban settings. There were no significant differences in weight, body mass index (BMI), height, or socioeconomic status between the study and control groups. A significant difference was observed between the two groups in terms of initial sit-and-reach tests and one-minute sit-ups.

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

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


The current study has some limitations, including the analysis of a specific group of individuals, which could limit the generalizability of the findings to 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 evaluate the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on physical fitness. Pandemic-induced restrictions, including limitations on outdoor activities and closures of fitness facilities, significantly affected physical activity levels, especially among younger adults. This potential decline in physical fitness can significantly exacerbate health risks.

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

Magazine reference:

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

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