5 min read

Deepening Depression Getting In The Way Of Those Who Want To Exercise  During  Pandemic

Apr 21, 2021 6:00:00 AM

Consider this: COVID-19 has increased anxiety and depression in millions of Americans. Millions of those Americans want to relieve that anxiety and depression by exercising. But they don't exercise because anxious and depressed people are typically too anxious and depressed to exercise. 

Exercise Is the Answer, But Pandemic Depression Poses Major Barrier

It’s a vicious cycle and a sad circumstance. But that’s exactly what's happened over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study by researchers at McMaster University, a public research university in Hamilton, Ontario.

The very thing that motivates people to exercise is also the very thing that is preventing them from ever getting started. Anxiety and depression are barriers disguised as motivators, much like spinning your wheels in the mud and going nowhere fast.

By June 2020, the worst was yet to come when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released separate survey results based on responses from nearly 1,700 U.S. adults:

  • 31% of respondents reported anxiety symptoms and depression

  • 26% reported stress-related symptoms

  • 13% reported having started or increased substance use

  • 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide within the previous 30 days

These percentages nearly doubled those from the previous year and trended consistently with similar surveys, including:

  • A study conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health which indicated that rates of depression had more than tripled to 27.8% by mid-April 2020 - up from a pre-pandemic rate of 8.5%

  • U.S. Census Bureau survey results which indicated that 42% of respondents were exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression by December 2020 - up from 11% a year earlier

Clearly, the need and desire for exercise was there for many - but so were the corresponding barriers.

"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, adding:

"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."

Main Motivator To Exercise: Relief From Anxiety More Than Physical Health and Appearance

see why insync healthcare solutions is highly ratedThe purpose of the McMaster study was "to determine what it is about the pandemic that is making people less active." One result came as little to no surprise: Respondents with deteriorating mental health were also the ones who were the least active. 

Reciprocally, those who were the least active experienced increasing levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, those who were least active prior to the pandemic experienced higher levels of depression during the pandemic.

Researchers found that aerobic activity was down about 20 minutes per week, strength training was down about 30 minutes per week, and sedentary time increased about 30 minutes per day compared to six months before the pandemic. That's a weekly decrease of 50 minutes of physical activity and a weekly increase of 210 minutes of sitting around.

One of the most common barriers to exercise under normal circumstances is a perceived lack of time. Yet during the pandemic, 21% of respondents reported having sufficient time to exercise if they wanted. They didn't, however, because for reasons that included anxiety, lack of support, and no access to exercise facilities or equipment.

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."

Interestingly, of those who remained active during the pandemic, motivation had less to do with appearance and more to do with anxiety relief. Non-motivators generally included:

  • Physical appearance

  • Sports training

  • Weight loss

  • Enjoyment

  • Strength building

  • Social engagement

Conversely, motivators to exercise typically included:

  • Anxiety relief

  • Stress reduction

  • Improve sleep

The researchers concluded that respondents who maintained their physical activity levels fared much better mentally than those who didn't. This conclusion corresponds with previous studies that demonstrated a direct relationship between physical activity and good mental health. 

5 Easy Tips on How to Get Moving Again

"These results highlight the potential protective effect of physical activity on mental health and point to the need for psychological support to overcome perceived barriers so that people can continue to be physically active during stressful times like the pandemic," the report says.

In response to data generated from their studies, researchers designed an evidence-based toolkit which includes the following advice to get people moving again:

  • Adopt the mindset that 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 time on 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.

InSync EHR Software an Obvious Choice for Specialty Practices

From the outside looking in, it's easy to assess that a little exercise could go a long way toward alleviating much of the anxiety that's been building up during the current pandemic. Similar assessments can sometimes be made when it comes to making reasoned decisions regarding a practice's choice of EHR software. 

At InSync Healthcare Solutions, we specialize in behavioral health and physical therapy software systems that are fully integrated, interoperable and conveniently mobile-friendly.

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For a closer look at how the InSync EHR's specialized features and functionalities can improve workflow efficiencies in your practice, schedule a demo now with one of our experts. As a respected leader in behavioral health and physical therapy EHR software, we're happy to answer your questions and explain how we can save valuable time and money for your practice. 

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Plos One:

A mental health paradox: Mental health was both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during COVID-19 pandemic

National Institute of Mental Health:

One Year In: COVID-19 and Mental Health


COVID-19 has likely tripled depression rate, study finds

Andy Smith

Written by Andy Smith

Andy brings his passion for writing and editing, along with decades of experience, to research and compose stories that keep healthcare InSync. His articles take a deep dive into the trending and relevant issues of mental health, interoperability, physical therapy, speech therapy, substance abuse treatment, and CCBHC's - bringing clarity to the effects of emerging technology and Electronic Health Records on today's top healthcare stories.