Reduced physical activity during the pandemic could explain increase in depression

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Experts are particularly concerned about young adults’ mental health in recent months

Consumers’ mental health has taken a serious hit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and things have only intensified in recent months. 

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University has explored the link between increased depression during the pandemic and exercise. According to the researchers, less physical activity throughout the last year has taken a serious toll on mental health -- particularly for young adults.

“There is an alarming rate of anxiety and depression among young adults, especially among college students,” said researcher Silvia Saccardo. “The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis in this vulnerable population.”    

The mental toll of social isolation

For the study, the researchers had nearly 700 college students track their physical activity, sleep, and screen time across three semesters -- spring 2019, fall 2019, and spring 2020. They wore FitBits for each of the three semesters to get an accurate reading of their physical activity and sleep, and an app on their phones kept a log of their screen time. 

The spring 2020 semester coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers found that as lockdown orders intensified and the college students’ regular schedules were disrupted, mental health worsened. 

All three metrics -- physical activity, sleep, and screen time -- took a hit as the pandemic progressed. In the prior two semesters, the students averaged 10,000 steps a day -- but once the pandemic hit, that figure dropped to 4,600 steps per day. Similarly, the students were sleeping nearly a half hour more each night, and their screen time doubled compared to the previous two semesters. 

This also led to a significant spike in depression-related symptoms. Before the spring 2020 semester, depression rates topped out at just over 60 percent among the students; however, more than 90 percent of the students were struggling with depression by the end of the spring 2020 semester. 

“We used this unique dataset to study what factors are predictive of changes in depression,” Saccardo said. “[In the dataset,] we can see that mental health gets worse as the semester progresses, but it is dramatically worse in 2020 compared to the previous cohort.” 

More physical activity isn’t the answer 

The researchers conducted another experiment at the end of the spring 2020 semester to see if increasing physical activity would boost the students’ mental health. Half of the students were rewarded for increasing their exercise routine for two weeks, and the researchers then reevaluated their mental health at several points up to one month after the test ended. 

Ultimately, this intervention was ineffective. Despite more exercise during this trial, the participants were still struggling with depression and anxiety. This was surprising to the researchers, as countless studies have identified the mental health benefits associated with exercise. 

“While our short intervention increased physical activity among this group, it did not have an impact on mental health,” said Saccardo. “It is an interesting puzzle for future studies to understand why we do not see a symmetric relationship between the resumption of physical activity and mental health.” 

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