Mental health problems and concerns have been both a barrier to exercise and a motivation for people to exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Researchers have long known that regular physical activity — particularly aerobic exercise — is linked to a lower risk for mental health problems like depression and anxiety. But those same mental health problems can also serve as a barrier to getting enough exercise in some people, potentially leading to a “loop” of poor outcomes in which people are too anxious or depressed to exercise, and this lack of exercise contributes to their anxiety or depression.
For the latest study, researchers wanted to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic affected people’s exercise habits and mental health. They conducted an online survey that included 1,669 respondents, who answered questions about their exercise habits, perceived barriers or motivations to exercise, and how changes to exercise habits due to COVID-19 affected their mental health. There were 30 questions in total, which respondents answered between April 23 and June 30, 2020.
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Physical activity tied to mental health during the pandemic
Overall, survey participants reported getting 11% less aerobic activity, 30% less strength-based activity, and 11% more sedentary time during the pandemic compared with the six months before it started. There was a 22% increase in responses indicating psychological stress, which contributed to mild anxiety and depression in many respondents. People who reported the biggest decline in their mental health were also more likely to report getting the least physical activity. Reasons given for not getting as much exercise as before the pandemic included being too anxious (an overall increase of 8%), lacking social support (increase of 6%), having limited or reduced access to equipment (increase of 23%), and not having enough space (increase of 41%).
Some people, though, reported staying physically active despite the pandemic. For these survey participants, the pandemic brought on changes in what motivated them to exercise. Compared with the six months before the pandemic, these participants were less likely to be motivated by weight loss (an overall decrease of 7%) or strength (decrease of 14%) and more likely to be motivated by mental health concerns, like relief from anxiety (increase of 14%). These responses, the researchers wrote, highlight the potential protective effect exercise can have on mental health, and reinforce the need to help people overcome perceived barriers to getting physical activity during times of upheaval.
“During stressful times, like the COVID-19 pandemic, people are especially motivated to be physically active for their mental health but may be too anxious or depressed to partake,” the researchers concluded. “Our results point to the need for additional psychological supports to help people maintain their physical activity levels during stressful times in order to…prevent the development of a mental health crisis.”
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