- On average, walking activity decreased from 10,000 to 4,600 steps per day after home stay orders began in March 2020.
- Staying physically active and walking at least 10,000 steps a day or more during the pandemic was linked to a lower risk of depression, according to a new study.
- However, restoring daily physical activity through a short-term intervention of 10,000 steps per day did not immediately improve study participants’ wellbeing.
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Although exercise is not a panacea or panacea that can instantly cure the mental disorders that emerged during the COVID-19 lockdown, new research suggests that those who have had during the first few months of the pandemic (March through July 2020) remained active, with fewer depression than those who became more sedentary during the same period. These results (Giuntella, Hyde, Saccardo & Sadoff, 2021) were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 2.
Four researchers from three universities conducted this multidisciplinary study: Osea Giuntella from the Department of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh, Kelly Hyde and Silvia Saccardo from the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, and Sally Sadoff from the School of Management at UCSD.
For this study, researchers used a longitudinal dataset that linked biometric and survey data from multiple cohorts of young college-aged adults (N = 682) before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The aim of the study was to examine lifestyle and mental health disorders that occurred from February (before classes went online) to July 2020 by detecting changes in people’s daily physical activity, sleeping habits, time spent, and general mental health were documented.
The participants not only reported on their daily habits, but also filled out surveys. They wore fitness trackers (Fitbits) that monitored their activities around the clock. Participants began providing Fitbit data and lifestyle surveys in February. They continued to participate from home after classes switched to online learning.
At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, sleep among study participants increased by an average of 25 to 30 minutes per night. The average number of steps per day decreased from 10,000 to 4,600. Screen time has more than doubled to five hours a day. And the daily time people spent socializing dropped to an average of less than 30 minutes a day.
In the first months of this pandemic from March to July 2020, the proportion of participants at risk of depression was between 46 and 61 percent. According to the authors, this statistic means a “90 percent increase in depression rates compared to the same population just before the pandemic”.
In particular, when bans and assignments at home disrupted people’s daily physical activity, the risk of depression skyrocketed. “Those who experienced a one to two hour decrease in physical activity per day were most at risk of depression during the pandemic, while those who were able to maintain their daily habits were the least at risk,” the authors note firmly.
However, when it comes to the ability of physical activity to relieve symptoms of depression – and the possibility that people who were naturally less prone to depression may also be more likely to remain active – there is a remarkable twist in these findings. Although staying physically active while at home was associated with fewer depressive symptoms, study participants who had become more sedentary, taking 10,000 steps per day, showed no immediate antidepressant effects.
“Our results also suggest a mystery: physical activity and mental health disorders are strongly related, however [the] Restoring physical activity through short-term intervention does not improve mental health, “the authors wrote.
“This raises many possible explanations, including the fact that the effects of physical activity may require longer-term intervention,” Sadoff said in a press release. “At the same time, our results clearly show that those who maintained physical activity throughout the pandemic were the most resilient and suffered the least from depression.”
Noteworthy: This study did not investigate how other intensities of aerobic exercise such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or moderate-intensity cardio training (e.g. jogging) affect depressive symptoms after 14 days.
Previous research (Brush et al., 2020) found that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise “demonstrated antidepressant efficacy in adults with severe depression,” more than light-intensity stretching alone. It would be interesting for future studies to investigate whether walking briskly 10,000 steps per day affects people’s mental health differently than walking slowly (the same number of daily steps). (See “New Notes on the Antidepressant Power of Aerobic Exercise.”)
In addition to the possibility that the antidepressant effects of cardio will only occur with moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA), other social dynamics may come into play. For example, the sense of connectedness and community that one experienced while taking a spin class or doing cardio training alongside other athletes immediately disappeared when exercise facilities were closed during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the relationship between lifestyle maintenance and mental health,” concluded Sadoff and co-authors. “More research is needed to understand how physical and mental health can be improved during times of major disruption.”