Did you know that your mental health and physical health are closely intertwined when it comes to exercise? Exercise is known to be associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and now there is a growing body of literature that recognizes the positive effects of exercise on mood states such as anxiety, stress and depression.1 Recently, COVID-19 restrictions have disrupted our routines and brought challenges to our daily lives. Even people with no history of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder may experience a certain degree of stress during a pandemic, making it difficult to maintain their mental health.
A few highlights from the research:
Aerobic exercise can have a significant antidepressant effect for adults diagnosed with major depression. 2
Adults over the age of 40 with higher levels of physical activity compared to those with lower levels, are at an 18% reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. 3
Those who exercise have over 43% fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than those individuals who do not exercise. 1
Now you might be asking yourself, “What type of exercise are you talking about? How often should I be exercising? I’m not a runner/weight lifter/yogi, so how do I know what’s best for me?”
The evidence-based, research-y, science-y answer:
In a study that analyzed data from 1.2 million people over the age of 18 in the United States over a 4-year period, researchers found that team sports, cycling, aerobic exercises, gym activities, and yoga are all examples that were shown to improve mental health.1 This study also looked at the optimal frequency and duration of physical exercise and found that it is not a “the more, the better” relationship. When individuals engage in about 45 minutes of exercises 3-5 days a week, that is when the mental health burden is at its lowest.
Now you may be asking yourself, "What if I don't feel like I have 45 minutes of spare time 3-5 times a week for exercising?" The short answer is:
All exercise types were associated with a lower mental health burden than not exercising at all.
In other words, start somewhere. You don't have to go from couch potato to marathon runner right this second. Instead of binging on 3 or 4 episodes of your favorite t.v. show (that you can now quote), use the time it would take to watch one of those episodes to get up and get moving. Take an extra break in-between studying for school or getting that project done at your desk. Stand up and stretch. Go on a walk. Turn on your favorite tunes and dance like nobody’s watching. Grab one of those giant 36-roll toilet paper packs you fought for at the beginning of this epidemic and go lift it a few times (using good body mechanics of course!). Get that blood pumping in some way. Replace just a small bit of your sitting time with active time, and then build from there when you can.
Further Support for “Get Up and Get Moving”:
Last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers wanted to know how COVID-19 restrictions affected physical activity, sedentary behaviors and mental health. Individuals who met their physical activity guidelines before COVID-19-related restrictions, decreased their physical activity by 32% after COVID-19-related restrictions. Researchers also found substantial increases in sitting and screen time with these participants. Those who increased their sitting and screen time, also decreased their physical activity, which showed higher rates of anxiety, loneliness, stress and depressive symptoms.4
So according to the research, it’s possible that we’ve replaced that time we could be movin’ and groovin’ with more sedentary activities. Fortunately, we can change that.
COVID-19 has caused a shift in how we go about our daily lives. We've seen a huge transition to virtual work, so it's in our best interest to keep in mind the importance of balancing our increased sitting and screen time with opportunities to be active in order to maintain our mental health. Exercise can be a control mechanism for many of those who are living with mental illness, and it can be a protective factor for those without mental illness. Exercise has been shown to decrease inflammation, anxiety, stress, and depression, while improving psychological, physiological and immunological functions.5 Maintaining or increasing your physical activity during periods of significant societal changes could have profound effects on sustaining your mental health.4
Let's shake off the quarantine blues, anxieties, and what-have-yous. Get up and get moving - in whatever way that looks like, in whatever way that feels good to you. One step at a time, one day at a time. We believe in you. You’ve got this.
References 1.) Chekroud, S., Gueorguieva, R., Zheutlin, A., Paulus, M., Krumholz, H., Krystal, J., & Chekroud, A. (2018, August 08). Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: A cross-sectional study. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30227-X 2.) Morres, I., Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Stathi, A., Comoutos, N., Arpin‐Cribbie, C., Krommidas, C., & Theodorakis, Y. (2018, October 18). Aerobic exercise for adult patients with major depressive disorder in mental health services: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22842 3.) Blondell, S. J., Hammersley-Mather, R., & Veerman, J. L. (2014). Does physical activity prevent cognitive decline and dementia? A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. BMC public health, 14, 510. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-14-510 4.) Meyer, J., McDowell, C., Lansing, J., Brower, C., Smith, L., Tully, M., & Herring, M. (2020). Changes in physical activity and sedentary behavior in response to COVID-19 and their associations with mental health in 3052 US adults. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(18). 5.) Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017, September 07). Exercise and mental health. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2017.09.003