The Pandemic’s Devastating Impact on Gen Z’s Fitness, Nutrition and Mental Health

Beatrice J. Doty

New data from Murphy Research’s State of Our Health food and fitness tracker shows the alarming impacts COVID-19 has had on Gen Z’s engagement with health and fitness

Rather than assume Gen Z’s tech savviness has inoculated their health and wellbeing during the pandemic, brands and those who market to this consumer group need to recognize their experience during the past year and meet them where they’re at.

According to Murphy Research, a 10-year-old leading market research firm known for creative research design, rigorous execution and enduring insights, Gen Z – teens and young adults born between 1997 and 2007 – have been silently suffering during the course of the pandemic, particularly when it comes to health and wellness. While every other generation has generally been able to maintain, or even improve, their physical and mental health during the past year, Gen Z has become less engaged with their health during this time. These findings are from a new report, Gen Z on the Rise: Exploring Fitness, Food and Mindfulness Among Teens and Young Adults. The data informing the report is from Murphy Research’s State of Our Health (SOOH) syndicated study, the largest and most comprehensive ongoing food and fitness tracker in the U.S.

While in theory, tech savvy Gen Z might have been primed to easily adapt to the pandemic, SOOH data shows this is a flawed assumption. Approximately 82 percent of Gen Z started 2020 engaged in their health in some way. This dropped to 78 percent by the end of the year. In real terms, this means that almost 1.8 million young people stopped engaging with healthy eating or exercise over the year. This is in stark contrast to Millennials, born between 1981 – 1996, who went from 76 percent engagement to close to 82 percent engagement during 2020.

The new report also finds that Gen Z rated themselves progressively worse on achieving many of their personal health goals throughout the pandemic. For example, at the start of 2020, 54 percent of teens and young adults gave themselves at least a B when it came to goals around improving mental health. This dropped to only 47 percent by the end of the year. And, the data shows similar drops in the areas of social relationships, stress, and diet.

While Gen Z has suffered overall during the pandemic, young adults, ages 18-23, seem to have been hit particularly hard. According to SOOH, their health engagement dropped from 82% percent in early 2020 to only 75 percent by the end of last year. Additionally, young adults largely quit their exercise routines with only 53 percent of this group exercising weekly at the end of 2020. This is compared to 61 percent just a year earlier. This is particularly worrisome because exercise is often the linchpin of young adults’ health and wellness routines. Less engaged with nutrition than older consumers, young people often rely more on exercise for confidence and self-esteem, to balance their eating, to manage their mood and energy, to relieve stress and anxiety, and as a social outlet.

Further examining the data around young adults’ declining fitness engagement during the pandemic shows that this trend was led by young men. One contributing factor is likely gym closures. Young adults are more reliant on gyms than any other age group, and young men even more so. In the first 3 months of 2020, 57 percent of young men reported working out at a gym/studio weekly, much higher than young women at 34 percent. By the end of 2020, this fell to 43 percent. While young men have used more online fitness videos in the past year, this increase has been nominal and has not compensated for gym visits. The data shows many young men simply dropped their exercise routines altogether. This makes sense knowing young adults often live in cramped and crowded quarters and tend to have limited financial resources to purchase fitness equipment, unlike many older consumers who did so during the pandemic. When it comes to coping strategies for tough times, fitness is often the only (or the strongest) tool in many young mens’ toolkits. The loss of this critical aspect of their lives has been incredibly impactful, and has likely led to a cascade of other ill health effects.

“While a lot of attention has been paid to the unequal impact of COVID-19 on women, and rightfully so, our State of Our Health tracker shows that the largely negative experience of Gen Z during the pandemic also warrants serious attention,” said Chuck Murphy founder and president of Murphy Research. “The data clearly demonstrates that, when it comes to health and wellness, Gen Z has suffered while other generations have held fairly steady, as in the case of Boomers, Gen X and the Silent Generation, or even improved, which is true of Millennials. Rather than assume Gen Z’s tech savviness has inoculated their health and wellbeing during the pandemic, brands and those who market to this consumer group need to recognize their experience during the past year and meet them where they’re at. Marketers should be asking how they can best help and reach this generation at this important time.”

Along with how Gen Z fared during the pandemic, Gen Z on the Rise: Exploring Fitness, Food and Mindfulness Among Teens and Young Adults explores overall health and wellness trends among these emerging consumers. Specifically, it examines the state of fitness, nutrition, and wellness for teens and young adults. Besides being highly connected and technologically advanced, Gen Z also has had far more education about health, nutrition, and fitness than previous generations, including Millennials. At the same time, their youth means they’re more apt to take their health for granted, so understanding what Gen Z knows and how they act on it is critical to effectively engaging this generation.

Media can access an abridged version of the Gen Z on the Rise: Exploring Fitness, Food and Mindfulness Among Teens and Young Adults report by emailing [email protected] The full report is available for purchase on the Murphy Research website.

About State of Our Health

Since 2018, State of Our Health (SOOH) has been continuously collecting data from 1,000 U.S. consumers aged 13 and up each month, providing for in-depth insights over time that uniquely examine trends that lie at the intersection of fitness and food. The vast amount of information collected through SOOH allows for exceptionally clear insights into how COVID-19 continues to impact almost every facet of American health- and wellness-related behaviors. Today, SOOH is the only syndicated tracker examining both food and fitness, and how the two are related. To date, more than 35,000 consumers have participated in the 45-minute SOOH questionnaire, providing both incredible breadth and unparalleled depth. SOOH employs gold standard quantitative and qualitative research methods informed by decades of experience.

About Murphy Research

Murphy Research is a full-service market research firm that understands groundbreaking research lies at the intersection of science and creativity. Based in Santa Monica, but with offices in Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis and Washington D.C, the firm is known for its creative research design, rigorous execution and enduring insights. Murphy Research offers quantitative and qualitative services to help clients with market assessment, brand strategy, product development, customer loyalty and engagement and communications research. The firm works with leading Fortune 500 companies, like PepsiCo, Sony, YouTube, Disney and Google, among many others, along with emerging technology, CPG, retail, media, communications and financial services organizations.

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