New Zealanders rate their mental health, diet as 'good', 'excellent' post lockdown - study

Kiwis are prioritising both their physical and mental health following the COVID-19 lockdowns, with new research finding improved eating habits and communication about mental health may be positive outcomes from a stressful year. 

The new Habits for Healthy Living report from WW (formerly Weight Watchers) released this week claims more than 3.4 million New Zealanders are intending to prioritise their health above all else in the next six months. Weight loss (24 percent) and increased fitness (24 percent) were listed as the top goals, ahead of other priorities like career goals (10 percent) and learning new skills (5 percent).

The report also asked New Zealanders to rate how they perceive their own wellness in the areas of mental health, diet, sleeping habits and fitness levels.

Using a research sample size of 1030 Kiwis aged 18 years and older, 59 percent rated their mental health as 'good' or 'excellent', with 49 percent giving that score to their diet and 33 percent to their fitness levels. 

The high mental health satisfaction may be surprising to many as we near the end of 2020, which has been unduly difficult thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic which led to several nationwide lockdown periods and businesses being forced to close. 

But one third of respondents also revealed they'd placed increased importance on their mental health since March, in line with government advice during the pandemic to "acknowledge your feelings".

Registered psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings told the AM Show this week Kiwis are "looking to take the power back" when it comes to their mental health. 

"We have now been living in the uncertain times of COVID-19 for more than six months, and it's completely understandable and normal that many have suffered from bouts of stressa and anxiety," she said.

"These emotions can come from lack of control over a situation, but Kiwis are looking to take the power back. While there are things that you can't control, you can control your perspective and mindset."

Dr Jillings even said some will be missing alter level 4 lockdown.

"Lockdown gave us the opportunity to really reset, and for the first time we really prioritised our mental health. It was the first time that we were really able to be open with each other and say 'are you okay?' without any stigma.

"We were really united with the feeling that we were all in this together."

Another surprising rating may be the 49 percent positive rating Kiwis gave their diet, when compared to the Ministry of Health's 2018/2019 nationwide health survey showing more than two-thirds of Kiwis are currently overweight or obese.

But again, this may be another positive outcome of the pandemic. 

WW's Director of Programme and Science Dr Michelle Celander says that thanks to lockdown, "we've been cooking more at home, which has no doubt led to improved eating habits for some, and could explain this high rating in part." 

But the accredited dietician warns that we be disconnected from our real food intake.

"At the same time, we've also had easier access to the fridge and snacks, which has led to the 'COVID weight creep', explaining why so many of us are now focused on weight loss."