Exercise is important for keeping our bodies healthy. It is also well documented that outdoor exercise helps the mind feel less anxious, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic presented researchers with an opportunity to examine the correlation between exercise and mental health.
Experts from the Division of Behavioral Research within the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation have investigated the mental health of Americans throughout the initial lockdown period of COVID-19.
A large portion of the study participants were women over the age of 50, resulting in most of the overall respondents explaining that they were retired and adhered to the stay-at-home orders.
The results were based on the surveying of 20,000 participants across 6 U.S. regions, including Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, the mid-Atlantic states, and California. The original survey took place in April of 2020 and consisted of over 250,000 participants, but people who reported symptoms of COVID-19 were not included in the final analysis.
Unsurprisingly, the results showed that those who exercised regularly during the lockdown period showed significantly reduced levels of depression and anxiety than those who did not exercise. Furthermore, people who took their exercise outdoors showed further improvements in mental health over those who stayed indoors.
The report also demonstrated that anxiety and depression decreased over time (due to people gradually relaxing how they adhered to stay-at-home orders). In addition, anxiety and depression scores were higher for young people and females, whilst they were generally lower in Asian and Black demographics relative to white people.
“What these study findings tell us is that even during an active pandemic or other public health crisis, people should be encouraged to be physically active to help maintain their physical and mental health,” explained study lead author Deborah Rohm Young. “Parks and other natural areas should remain open during public health emergencies to encourage outdoor physical activity.”
However, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic did not pan out this way. In order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, public health officials gave stay-at-home orders, discouraging people from socializing and taking part in outdoor activities, in addition to forcing businesses to temporarily close. When combined with the economic obstacles of job loss, these factors ultimately contributed to an increase in overall levels of depression and anxiety.
“What we learned from these findings is that during future emergencies it will be important to carefully weigh the decisions to close parks and outdoor areas against the negative impact those closures may have on people’s mental health,” said Dr. Young.
The study has been published in the journal Preventive Medicine.