Stress and Anxiety Major Factors for People Not Exercising

NODE SMITH, ND

New research from McMaster University suggests the pandemic has created a paradox where mental health has become both a motivator for and a barrier to physical activity. The results are outlined in the journal PLOS ONE.

People want to be active to improve their mental health but find it difficult to exercise due to stress and anxiety, say the researchers who surveyed more than 1,600 subjects in an effort to understand how and why mental health, physical activity, and sedentary behavior have changed throughout the course of the pandemic.

“Maintaining a regular exercise program is difficult at the best of times and the conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may be making it even more difficult,” says Jennifer Heisz, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster.

“Even though exercise comes with the promise of reducing anxiety, many respondents felt too anxious to exercise. Likewise, although exercise reduces depression, respondents who were more depressed were less motivated to get active, and lack of motivation is a symptom of depression,” she says.

Respondents reported higher psychological stress and moderate levels of anxiety and depression triggered by the pandemic. At the same time, aerobic activity was down about 20 minutes per week, strength training down roughly 30 minutes per week, and sedentary time was up about 30 minutes per day compared to six months prior to the pandemic.

Those who reported the greatest declines in physical activity also experienced the worst mental health outcomes, the researchers reported, while respondents who maintained their physical activity levels fared much better mentally.

Researchers also found economic disparities played a role, particularly among younger adults.

“Just like other aspects of the pandemic, some demographics are hit harder than others and here it is people with lower income who are struggling to meet their physical activity goals,” says Maryam Marashi, a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology and co-lead author of the study. “It is plausible that younger adults who typically work longer hours and earn less are lacking both time and space which is taking a toll.”

After analyzing the data, the researchers designed an evidence-based toolkit that includes the following advice to get active:

  • Adopt a mindset: Some exercise is better than none.
  • Lower exercise intensity if feeling anxious.
  • Move a little every day.
  • Break up sedentary time with standing or movement breaks.
  • Plan your workouts like appointments by blocking off the time in your calendar.

“Our results point to the need for additional psychological supports to help people maintain their physical activity levels during stressful times in order to minimize the burden of the pandemic and prevent the development of a mental health crisis,” says Heisz.

1. Maryam Yvonne Marashi, Emma Nicholson, Michelle Ogrodnik, Barbara Fenesi, Jennifer J. Heisz. A mental health paradox: Mental health was both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. PLOS ONE, 2021; 16 (4): e0239244 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0239244

Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, and associate editor and continuing education director for NDNR. His mission is serving relationships that support the process of transformation, and that ultimately lead to healthier people, businesses, and communities. His primary therapeutic tools include counseling, homeopathy, diet, and the use of cold water combined with exercise. Node considers health to be a reflection of the relationships a person or a business has with themselves, with God and with those around them. In order to cure disease and to heal, these relationships must be specifically considered. Node has worked intimately with many groups and organizations within the naturopathic profession and helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic Revitalization (ANR), which works to promote and facilitate experiential education in vitalism.

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