The central theses
- A new study finds a strong link between symptoms of depression and decreased exercise in college students during the pandemic.
- Short-term physical activity interventions did not reduce the symptoms of depression.
- Regular exercise is important for overall health, and experts recommend aiming for 150 to 300 minutes of exercise per week.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed our everyday lives, especially how often we move our bodies. However, a sedentary lifestyle can be detrimental to our health and spirits. A recent study linked decreased exercise during the pandemic to increased depression in college students.
The researchers were in a unique position to study this phenomenon, having followed the students a year before the pandemic was officially declared in the United States. When March 2020 forced people indoors, they found depression levels nearly doubling – from 32% to 32% 61%...
Upon closer inspection, they found that those most prone to developing depression had failed to maintain their previous physical activities.
“Before the pandemic, people were walking about 10,000 steps a day which is the recommended guideline,” says Dr. Silvia Saccardo, study author and professor at the Institute for Social and Decision-making Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, told Verywell. “It’s around 4,600 during the pandemic, so we’ve seen a huge drop.”
Participants were also given biometric devices such as Fitbit to measure sleep and screen time and completed mental health questionnaires. Even when these different data are taken into account, Saccardo says the correlation is strongest: “Our data really indicated a link between a decrease in physical activity and a decrease in mental health.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in early March...
What this means for you
If you find that pandemic-related lifestyle changes are affecting your mental health, talk to your doctor about adjustment options. Experts now recommend building up to 150-300 minutes of exercise per week, whether it’s walking, running, stationary cycling, or doing yoga at home – anything that gets you moving. For free home exercise videos, you can search YouTube for a variety of options.
Daily patterns affect mental health
The researchers tracked 682 college-age students (18-24 years old) from February 2019 to July 2020. This timeline allowed them to compare lifestyle and mental health before and during the pandemic.
Students tracked their daily activities with Fitbits and completed questionnaires about their mental health. “We used a validated scale to measure the symptoms of depression, with questions like ‘I don’t see hope’ or ‘I feel hopeless, I’m unhappy, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat,'” Saccardo explains .
Before the pandemic, around a third of participants scored high on the depression scale. In March and April, however, this statistic rose to two-thirds. Those who were able to maintain physical activity before the pandemic were less likely to be depressed.
Additional results include an increase in sleep time of 25 to 30 minutes per night, with students usually waking up later. The time spent socializing also decreased by more than half to less than 30 minutes per day, with screen time doubling to five or more hours per day. Still, these factors weren’t as closely related to depression as exercise. “Our study shows that physical activity and mental health disorders are closely related,” adds Saccardo.
Do exercise interventions help?
Because mental health and depression were so closely correlated, Saccardo and her colleagues tried to see if they could affect mental health by encouraging more exercise.
In June, she says, they offered rewards to half of the attendees to extend their walking time. “We told them, ‘If you take 10,000 steps a day for the next two weeks, we’ll pay you $ 5 a day.'” The reward, while successful in getting people moving, did not lower their levels of depression.
While the intervention did not reverse the mental health effects of the pandemic, its lack of impact on depression levels could be due to the brevity or type of exercise. “We acknowledge that our intervention wasn’t very long – it was only two weeks,” says Saccardo. Nor did people walk over and over again for consecutive days – it was only 10,000 steps.
“Perhaps these people who were showing great disruption in physical activity weren’t just walking around,” Saccardo says. “Maybe they did exercise or went to the gym and exercised in social settings.” With many habits disrupted by the pandemic, Saccardo concludes, “There could be many things that need to be restored at the same time to restore well-being.”
Adjust your exercise to suit you
Regular exercise is important for general wellbeing, but it doesn’t have to be just some type of exercise or the type you did before the pandemic. According to Saccardo, the recent disturbances in daily life offer an opportunity for adjustment.
“For example, I went to the gym before the pandemic started,” she says. “Now I’m just doing the same thing but with online courses and I’m not sure I want to go back.”
“I was a little lucky,” William Roberts, MD, MS, professor and director of faculty affairs in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, told Verywell. Roberts thinks he’s “happy” because he finds that he actually does more exercise and has access to home appliances and space to walk outdoors during the pandemic.
When recommending exercise plans for patients, Roberts likes to keep them simple and focus on what each person has or can provide. “A lot of people know someone who has an exercise machine that they don’t use,” he says. “Borrow it. It’s the cheapest way to do it around the house.” He also notes that his daughters use stationary bikes to compete and motivate each other.
If you can find open places to walk around, go for it. There are many benefits to walking, says Roberts. “If you think it’s not enough, put on a backpack and throw in some weights.” If you only have access to crowded places, he says, just mask yourself and keep your distance.
In general, any physical activity that works for you is right. And you don’t need to stick to the typical 30 minute three times a week rule of thumb that only applies to high-intensity exercise. “We really changed the recommendation to build up to 150 to 300 minutes of physical activity per week in blocks of just five to 10 minutes,” says Roberts. “If you can accumulate that over a week, it’s better for your health.”
“Doing something is better than nothing,” adds Roberts, and if you’re someone who only gets time to exercise on the weekends – “just do it. You can work out longer, but if you get into those 150 to 300 minutes can.” on the weekends and not during the week it is okay. ”