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In U.S., Physical Health Plummets After the Pandemic

In U.S., Physical Health Plummets After the Pandemic

Story Highlights

  • Obesity and diabetes have both reached record highs
  • Healthy eating habits have worsened substantially since 2019; exercise unchanged
  • Other key aspects of physical health have worsened since before pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Key physical health metrics have notably worsened since before the COVID-19 pandemic, including obesity, diabetes and eating habits. The percentage of U.S. adults whom Gallup classifies as obese has reached an estimated 38.4%, up 6.0 percentage points since 2019 and just shy of the record high of 39.9% measured in 2022. A new high of 13.6% of respondents say they have been diagnosed by a medical professional with diabetes, up 1.1 points since 2019.


The most recent results, obtained Aug. 30-Sept. 8, 2023, are based on 5,316 U.S. adults surveyed by web as part of the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel of about 100,000 adults across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Unlike some government estimates of obesity, Gallup uses respondents' self-reported height and weight to calculate body mass index (BMI) and subsequent weight classes. It does not involve randomized clinical measurements that typically result in higher obesity estimates. A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. Additionally, Gallup does not discern between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes but rather asks: "Has a doctor or nurse ever told you that you have diabetes?"

Not all individuals who are obese will develop diabetes, and some who are of a healthy weight will get the disease. Factors other than obesity status or age could increase the risk of developing diabetes, including physical inactivity, race and ethnicity, and genetic predisposition. Both metrics are part of the ongoing Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index.

The increase in obesity since 2019 varies by age. Those aged 45 to 64 and those aged 30 to 44 report the biggest increases -- up 8.2 and 6.1 points, respectively. Adults under the age of 30 have not seen a significant increase.


Eating Habits Have Eroded Substantially Since 2019

Both eating and exercise habits influence the probability of being obese or being diagnosed with diabetes. The percentage of adults who report eating healthy the prior day has dropped 5.0 points since 2019, from 51.7% to 46.7%, with particularly large declines in healthy eating among those aged 30 to 44 (down 9.2 points). Only those younger than 30 have not suffered a statistically meaningful decline for this metric. As is historically the case, reports of healthy eating increase with age.


Produce consumption, in turn, is down even more, with 42.0% of respondents reporting having had at least five servings of fruits and vegetables on at least four days in the prior week -- a key cutoff point in wellbeing outcomes. The current rate is down 7.9 points from 49.9% in 2019. The decline in produce consumption is greatest among those aged 45 to 64 and 30 to 44, down 10.5 and 8.5 points each. As with daily healthy eating, young adults are the only age group to not show a statistically meaningful decline in produce consumption during this period.


While eating habits have notably worsened, exercise habits have remained unchanged since before the pandemic. Reports of exercising 30 or more minutes at least three days per week remain steady at 49.1% of adults, compared with 48.1% in 2019.

Despite exercise holding steady, several other key health metrics have worsened, dovetailing with eroded eating habits. While reports of currently having or being treated for high blood pressure are unchanged, high cholesterol is up 3.3 points to 25.1%. And other more subjective measures -- such as feeling active and productive every day, having “near perfect” physical health, and feeling good about your own physical appearance -- are all down significantly.



Obesity has climbed steadily in the U.S. since Gallup began ongoing measurement in 2008, increasing about 13 percentage points to the current level of 38.4%. This means there are now an estimated 33 million more U.S. adults who are obese today than would have been the case if the rate had held steady at the 2008 level.

Much of the recent increase in obesity may be associated with modified health behaviors resulting from the pandemic. While exercise rates have managed to remain intact, eating habits nationally have eroded substantially since 2019, underscoring an urgency for communities, organizations and government agencies alike to reinvigorate healthy eating priorities. These can include making healthy eating options easier by adding healthier choices to restaurant menus, business cafeterias and school lunchrooms, as well as moving health food markets to the front of grocery stores. Free healthy cooking classes and displaying nutritional information for more informed decisions are also helpful tactics.

These health effects have practical implications for the U.S. economy. After controlling for factors such as age, income and education, workers with poor physical health -- and poor wellbeing generally -- suffer greatly enhanced levels of unplanned absenteeism and healthcare utilization (and associated costs) than do their counterparts.

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Learn more about how the Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index works.

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