Pandemic paradox: Mental health both encourages and impedes exercise during COVID

HAMILTON, Ontario — We’ve all heard time and time again during this pandemic that it’s extra important for everyone to take care of their mental health. While it’s well-documented that regular exercise is a great way to keep depressive or anxious thoughts at bay, a new study finds the connection between mental health and exercise isn’t so simple. Researchers from McMaster University say the COVID-19 pandemic has created a paradox for many people in which mental health has become both a motivator and a barrier to exercise.

In other words, many people want to get in more exercise and be active during the pandemic, but a large percentage find it hard to follow through due to all of the stress and anxiety they’re already feeling. This exercise procrastination of course only leads to more stress over failing to exercise; ultimately creating a vicious cycle of anxiety and stagnant behavior.

“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 lead study author Jennifer Heisz, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, in a university release. “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.”

Take it slow to overcome workout stress

Study participants told researchers that they had been feeling more stressed, anxious, and depressed since the start of the pandemic. Simultaneously, reported rates of aerobic exercise were down by about 20 minutes per week, as well as 30 fewer minutes spent weight training on a weekly basis. Subjects also spent 30 more minutes per day in a sedentary position in comparison to six months before COVID-19.

Notably, participants who displayed the biggest drops in exercise habits also experienced more severe mental health symptoms. Conversely, people who were able to maintain their workout schedule generally fared better regarding mental health.

“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,” explains co-lead study author Maryam Marashi, a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology. “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.”

If any of this sounds like something you’ve been struggling with lately, study authors have a few suggestions. First of all, remember that a little exercise is always better than none. Also, if an intense workout seems intimidating, don’t be afraid to take things down a notch. You don’t have to beat your personal records every time you break a sweat. Planning out and scheduling your workouts is another helpful way to stay committed.

“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,” Heisz concludes.

The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

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