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New research investigates the relationship between exercise and mental health during the pandemic. Photo editing by Stephen Kelly; LindaRaymondPhotography/Getty Images
  • The mental health benefits of physical activity have been out of reach for people whose stress and anxiety levels have kept them from exercising during the pandemic, a new study shows.
  • People who have continued to exercise during the pandemic are more likely to be doing it for their mental health than for any other reason.
  • People who are less physically active than usual are experiencing more symptoms of mental health conditions during the pandemic.

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Physical activity can help benefit mental health. Research also shows that people with severe mental health conditions tend to be less physically active than those with good mental health.

A new study by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, has found that the anxiety and stress that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic have made it less likely that people will engage in physical activity that could help them maintain their mental health.

The results showed that those who have remained physically active during the pandemic have done so primarily to maintain their mental health. For others, mental health problems have become a barrier to exercise.

The lead author of the study is Dr. Jennifer Heisz, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University. Dr. Heisz says:

“Even though exercise comes with the promise of reducing anxiety, many respondents felt too anxious to exercise. Likewise, although exercise reduces depression, respondents who were more depressed were less motivated to get active, and lack of motivation is a symptom of depression.”

The study features in the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers collected data from 1,669 people for the study. The participants had to be at least 18 years old, be fluent in English, and have online access to the researchers’ 30-question survey.

One acknowledged limitation of the study is that its sample predominantly included well-educated, female Canadians aged 18–29 years. The authors do not report the racial or ethnic characteristics of the participants.

In addition, on average, the participants met the recommended physical activity levels, which is not true of the general population.

The survey consisted of a mix of multiple choice, single choice, and short answer questions that captured each individual’s demographic information, as well as their past and current levels of physical activity and their past and current experiences with stress, anxiety, and depression.

“Maintaining a regular exercise program is difficult at the best of times, and the conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may be making it even more difficult,” says Dr. Heisz.

The researchers found that the participants reduced their aerobic activity and strength training by an average of 22 and 32 minutes per week, respectively, compared with 6 months before the pandemic.

The participants also reported an additional 33 minutes of sedentary time per day.

Regarding barriers to exercise, the percentage of respondents listing the following factors increased by 6–41% compared with before the pandemic.

  • insufficient social support: 6%
  • lack of motivation: 8%
  • anxiety: 8%
  • lack of access to exercise equipment: 23%
  • lack of a place to exercise: 41%

Income was also a factor for some, says co-lead author and grad student Maryam Marashi:

“Just like other aspects of the pandemic, some demographics are hit harder than others, and here, it is people with lower income who are struggling to meet their physical activity goals. It is plausible that younger adults who typically work longer hours and earn less are lacking both time and space, which is taking a toll.”

Those who maintained their usual level of physical activity reported a shift in what motivated them, becoming more motivated by mental health and well-being.

Exercisers reported that stress reduction, anxiety relief, and improved sleep had become more significant motivators.

At the same time, common pre-COVID reasons to exercise became less important. These included weight loss, strength building, enjoyment, appearance goals, social engagement, sports training, and healthcare provider recommendations.

People who had most significantly reduced their physical activity during the pandemic struggled most with their mental health.

Those who exercised reported fewer mental health symptoms.

The authors have published an evidence-based toolkit that can help a person get moving and stay moving during the pandemic.

In addition, Dr. Heisz says that there’s a need for greater support of those seeking to maintain their mental and physical health during challenging times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Our results point to the need for additional psychological supports to help people maintain their physical activity levels during stressful times in order to minimize the burden of the pandemic and prevent the development of a mental health crisis.”

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