Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, researchers are starting to gain insight into how the virus has impacted different aspects of people’s lives.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the pandemic has changed the nature of the relationship between physical activity and mental health.
Beyond the depression and trauma that individuals and families experienced, the study found that the lack of exercise due to restricted movement and social distancing may have played a role in the increase in depression rates.
In this article, we will take a look at the research and list several practical steps individuals can take to gradually get back into a solid exercise routine.
Pandemic Depression Defined
As the global COVID-19 pandemic spread, many governments and health departments required individuals to begin socially isolating to reduce the spread of the virus.
This led to widespread closures of businesses, schools, and other places where people would normally come into contact with each other. In addition, many people were required to work from home or not at all.
This sudden change in routine caused many people to feel isolated, anxious, and depressed. The lack of social interaction and a sense of control over their lives led to what has been termed “pandemic depression.”
Symptoms of pandemic depression can include:
- Feelings of isolation
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Overeating or no appetite
- Changes in energy levels
Now, new research is shining a light on how the pandemic may have also led to a decline in physical activity and rates of depression.
The Research into Physical Activity During the Pandemic
The University of California of San Diego released a study that looked at the relationship between physical activity and mental health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study focused on college students aged 18-24 and utilized wearable technology to track their movements.
This data showed that many drastically reduced their physical activity during the pandemic’s most severe moments - with the average steps of subjects declining from almost 10,000 to 4,600 daily steps. This also correlated to reports of depression increasing from 32% to 61% in participants.
The study also found that when people did manage to get out and exercise, they felt better mentally. However, since people were generally much less active during the pandemic, rates of depression increased overall.
Implications of the Research
The research has significant implications for how we understand the relationship between physical activity and mental health.
It shows that a lack of physical activity can lead to an increase in rates of depression, and it is well-established that depression can make it harder to get up and get moving. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
It is important to note that the study does not prove that the COVID-19 pandemic caused a decline in physical activity and an increase in rates of depression. However, it provides significant evidence that there may be a link between the two.
What Can You Do?
If you are feeling depressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a few things you can do to help improve your mental health through physical exercise:
1. Try "Workout Snacks" Throughout The Day
Rather than trying to fit in a full workout, break up your physical activity into several mini-workouts. This can be as simple as:
- Going on a 10-minute walk
- Doing 10 minutes of yoga
- Keeping two dumbbells by your desk and doing sets of tricep curls and kickbacks in between meetings
- Doing a wall sit while reading email
By completing short bursts of activity throughout the day, you will help to keep your body active and your mind healthy.
2. Get in Touch With Local Exercise Groups
There are likely many exercise groups available in your local community that you can join. This can be a great way to meet new people and get back into a regular exercise routine.
Not only will this help you ease back into working out, but it will also help boost your social interaction among others who may be feeling isolated during the pandemic—a win-win.
3. Find an Exercise Buddy
Identify someone who is also looking to get back into a regular exercise routine and make a commitment to work out together. This can be a great way to stay motivated and on track.
A "walking buddy" can be a great way to make sure you get regular exercise, even if your typical routine has been disrupted by the pandemic.
4. Make Sure You Are Getting Enough Sleep
When you are sleep-deprived, it can be difficult to think straight, let alone exercise. Sleep deprivation can lead to a number of negative mental health outcomes, including depression.
Make sure you are getting enough sleep every night so that you have the energy to work out.
Care For Your Body and Mind
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for many people. If you are feeling depressed, isolated, or anxious, it is important to reach out for help. Research has shown that even small reductions in daily activity can lead to increases in rates of depression.
By taking a few simple steps to get back into physical activity, you can help care for your body and mind. And by doing so, you may find that you are better able to cope with the challenges of the pandemic.