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Pandemic creates a cycle of decline of physical activity and mental health, study suggests

By Erin Blakemore, published in The Washington Post

September 25, 2021 at 7:00 a.m. EDT

Has your mental health suffered during the pandemic?

Exercise — known to help lift moods and counter symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety — could help. But it can be hard to get moving.

A study in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports lays the blame not on laziness or lack of motivation, but on a cycle created and perpetuated by the pandemic.

Research conducted at North Carolina State University identifies a pattern that’s all too familiar — and suggests it’s a broad-scale public health problem.

The researchers used self-reported data from surveys collected between April and September 2020. Adult participants from five states were asked questions about demographics, health conditions and health behaviors. They were asked to estimate how much activity they got before the pandemic and during and identified their level of psychological distress before the pandemic and at the time of the survey.

After controlling for a variety of factors, the researchers found a relationship between physical activity and mental health. Those who experienced an increase in distress reduced their physical activity. This led to increased distress — and even less physical activity.

People with higher incomes had a better mental health status overall. Those with lower incomes weren’t as likely to maintain the activity levels they had at the beginning of the pandemic. Individuals who earned $50,000 a year or less were nearly 1 12 times less likely to maintain their activity levels compared to their wealthier counterparts.

Asian American participants reported higher distress during the pandemic, a shift the researchers say could relate to an increase in anti-Asian racism and bias.

Rural participants reported a smaller increase in distress, probably because they had more access to outdoor spaces during stay-at-home orders.

The researchers say changes are needed to make activity — and open spaces — more accessible to all.

“Covid-19 presents a robust research agenda for the future including examining the impacts of residential density and the health impacts of walkable communities with equitable access to parks, playgrounds, bike trails and sidewalks,” the study says.

And, the researchers say, support is needed for people with mental health problems so they can get the physical activity they need to prevent further deterioration of their health.

“Once you get on this roller coaster ride, it’s hard to get off,” says Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, who co-wrote the study, in a news release.



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