Background: The Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has caused unprecedented social and economic disruption, accompanied by the enactment of a multitude of public health measures to restrain disease transmission. These public health and social measures have had a considerable impact on lifestyle and mental wellbeing, which has been well-studied with metropolitan populations. However, limited literature concerning such effects on a selectively rural population is presently available. Additionally, the use of a standardised scoring system for lifestyle may be valuable for an overall assessment of lifestyle that may be incorporated into clinical practice.
Methods: This study examined the associations between psychological distress and changes in SNAPS health behaviours (smoking, nutrition, alcohol, physical activity, sleep) since the onset of COVID-19 in Australia. A cross-sectional anonymous survey was distributed online to adults in the Western New South Wales Primary Health Network in August 2020 and included measures of psychological distress, income, disposition, lifestyle factors during the pandemic as well as changes to lifestyle due to COVID-19. A novel Global Lifestyle Score (GLS) was generated as a holistic assessment of lifestyle across multiple domains.
Results: The survey was completed by 304 individuals (modal age group; 45-54 years old, 86.8% female). High distress on the K5 scale was present in over one-third of participants (n=95, 33.7%). Detrimental change was reported for sleep (22.7%), nutrition (14.5%), alcohol (16.7%), physical exercise (34.0%) and smoking (24.7%) since the onset of the pandemic. Changes in sleep, nutrition, physical activity and smoking were associated with distress. Participants with a poor lifestyle (GLS) during the pandemic were significantly more distressed. Perceived COVID-19 impact was associated with high distress, drought impact and loss of income. Participants who reported negative impact from both COVID-19 and drought were significantly more distressed than those reporting a negative impact from drought alone or neither event.
Conclusion: High rates of distress amongst rural Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic was linked to low Global Lifestyle Score (GLS), worsening lifestyles and loss of income. Healthy lifestyle strategies should be considered by health professionals for the management of crisis-related distress. Further research may explore the impact of COVID-19 on a larger study population with a greater proportion of male participants and to examine the effect of modifying lifestyle factors in reducing distress in the context of a stressor such as this pandemic.