If you struggled to find the motivation to exercise during the pandemic, you’re not alone. New research shows that higher levels of depression and anxiety led to a significant decrease in fitness motivation over the last year and a half.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives in many ways, some that we still have yet to fully understand. For many, the pandemic caused intense feelings of stress and anxiety, leading to a dramatic decline in mental health. As a result, public conversations about mental health have taken center stage, and employers are spending more on mental health resources than ever before. But we are still learning about how the mental health struggles of the last year affected our physical wellbeing.
This past April, a study published in PLOS One surveyed more than 1,600 people on their physical activity and mental health during the pandemic. The questionnaire was administered online between April 23 and June 30, 2020. Participants were asked to describe their current mental health and physical activity level in comparison to how they felt pre-pandemic.
Not surprisingly, the results showed that people experienced significantly more stress, anxiety, and depression during the pandemic. They also exercised less and sat around more. On average, participants lost 22 minutes of aerobic activity and 32 minutes of strength training each week. Meanwhile, they logged 33 additional minutes of sedentary time.
The decrease in time spent exercising during the early months of the pandemic can, of course, be partially attributed to the lockdowns in place. Approximately 45% of participants cited lack of gym access as a barrier to exercise, an obstacle only experienced by 5% of respondents pre-pandemic. However, poor mental health was an equally difficult obstacle to overcome.
Nearly 50% of participants said “lack of motivation” was their reason for exercising less, and over 20% specifically cited increased anxiety. Nearly 15% of respondents also reported “lack of support” as a barrier to exercise. An analysis of the results revealed that respondents who cited these barriers also experienced more symptoms of depression and anxiety. People who described their mental health as “worse” or “much worse” during the pandemic recorded the most significant decrease in physical activity.
Another study conducted during the first month of the pandemic analyzed fitness tracker data to observe changes in physical activity. Researchers looked at data from more than 455,000 people across 187 countries who used the wellness app Argus. In the first ten days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic on March 11, 2020, researchers noticed a 5.5% decrease in average daily steps. After thirty days, average daily steps had dropped by a dramatic 27.3%, approximately 1,432 less steps every day.
The steady and consistent decline in physical activity that occurred during the pandemic could have a massive cumulative impact. In the United States, the CDC estimates that only 1 in 4 adults get the recommended daily amount of physical activity, according to a report published in 2019. Now, as we continue to navigate the challenges that 2020 brought, the number of inactive adults is likely even greater.
The benefits of regular exercise on our social, emotional, physical, and mental health are well documented, but it can still be difficult to return to exercise after a long hiatus. If you’re beginning again, experts suggest partnering up with an accountability buddy and starting slow. If the last year and a half taught us anything, it’s that we should be kind to our minds and our bodies.