A team of researchers at McMaster University surveyed more than 1,600 individuals to investigate how their mental health, physical activity, and sedentary behavior were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The experts discovered that mental health issues served as a barrier to physical activity by blocking the motivation to exercise among people who could have benefited the most.
The researchers explained that people wanted to be active to improve their mental health but found it difficult to exercise due to stress and anxiety.
“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,” said study last author Jennifer Heisz.
“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 survey respondents reported higher psychological stress and moderate levels of anxiety and depression triggered by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, compared to six months prior to the pandemic, aerobic activity was down by about 20 minutes per week and sedentary time was up by about 30 minutes per day.
Individuals who reported the biggest drops in physical activity also experienced the worst mental health outcomes, noted the researchers, while respondents who maintained their physical activity levels fared much better mentally.
The study revealed that economic disparities also had a significant effect on mental health, particularly among young adults.
“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,” said study co-lead author Maryam Marashi.
“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.”
The experts have designed an evidence-based toolkit which includes the following advice to get active: some exercise is better than none, move a little every day, and lower the intensity of exercise when you are feeling anxious.
“Our results point to the need for additional psychological support 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,” said Heisz.
The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer