SASKATOON -- A study done by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan has found that isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the habits of university students.

The study found that students have shown a worsening of already poor dietary habits, low activity levels and sedentary behaviour, and high alcohol consumption.

“What we actually found was prior to COVID, university students weren't eating very well,” said researcher Gordon Zello. “In that same group during COVID that got worse.”

Zello says the study focused more on students who lived independently, without as much support from their parents, but those results aren’t limited to that group.

Second year university student Isabella Heppner lives at home and does online schooling, and says her habits have been affected as well.

“Normally I would get up in the morning for school, you have a shower, you get ready, and you go to school, and normally you just pick something up or you make something because you have to go somewhere,” she said.

“I just wake up, I kind of roll out of bed, and then come over here to my desk, and then I start. I don't even think about eating all the time, where if I do eat, it's like something quick like chicken nuggets.”

Dietitian Alison Friesen says she’s noticed a spike in eating disorders in all age groups during the pandemic, which can lead to increased stress.

“When you aren't eating, the simplest thing is your brain just doesn't have the energy to cope with day to day life in the same way that if you were to be eating a more balanced diet,” she said.

“If you aren't eating the same quality of food, that isn't something to be necessarily super concerned about. We need to learn to trust our body, and our body can adapt and take the nutrients that count, even with the poor quality foods, if you're getting poor quality food. It's important first and foremost to get in enough energy, and then next is ‘Okay let's adjust the quality if we can.’”

The study found that sedentary behaviour rose by three hours, to about 11 hours a day.

Sixteen per cent of participants met Canadian guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity per week before the pandemic, which decreased to 9.6 per cent during.

Of those who were meeting the guidelines before the pandemic, 90 per cent became less active.

“I would normally go to the gym at least two, three times a week,” said Heppner. “Because of COVID I'm just not comfortable going to the gym, and then also, because I'm always on my laptop and I don't have to leave the house.”

Mitch Gauvin with Mpowered Fitness in Saskatoon says a sedentary lifestyle can lead to a lower metabolism and weight-gain.

“Eventually that's going to put your health going in the wrong direction,” he said. “And then your mental health is going to suffer as well, you're not getting the endorphins that you're getting from your exercise.”

Zello says behaviours are hard to change, and longer periods of isolation during the pandemic can lead to health problems and newly formed habits becoming worse.

“It's hard to go back sometimes to your previous situation, so if you're now eating a poor diet, will that continue once COVID ends or can you go back to eating what you did before,” he said. “You'd be going to the gym, all of a sudden COVID hits you can't go to the gym anymore. COVID ends, ‘It's hard for me to go back to the gym’ right, I've just gotten so used to not going back.”

Gauvin says to take a small, measured approach if you find it difficult to get back into physical activity and health.

“Take a positive active approach to making it happen for yourself. You can start small with going for walks, maybe getting some groceries, checking out some recipes on YouTube.”

“I think it'll be pretty difficult to get back into the same routine,” said Heppner.