Research Review: Mental Health’s Impact on Physical Activity During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this article, our expert Dr Kate Edwards – Associate Professor in Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Sydney – reviews A mental health paradox: Mental health was both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic by Marashi et al. 2021 and breaks it down to give us the vital parts we need to know. 

1) What was the high-level summary of the research? 

This study from Canada found worsening of mental health and reduced physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The proportion of respondents reporting feeling stressed ‘Fairly often’, ‘Often’, or ‘Very often’ increased from 45% pre-pandemic to 67% during the pandemic. Aerobic activity decreased by 22 minutes, and strength -based activity decreased by 32minutes. The authors found that barriers to physical activity shifted from primarily time (from 42% reporting as a barrier down to 16%), to lack of access/equipment (from 5% up to 46%). But results showed an interesting paradox with mental health being both a motivator and barrier to physical activity. People wanted to be active to improve their mental health but found it difficult to be active due to their poor mental health. For example, anxiety relief as a motivation to exercise was reported at greater frequency during the pandemic (+14%), but increased anxiety was also reported as a barrier at greater frequency (+8%).


2) How was the study undertaken & what was it trying to measure? 

This simple internet survey was completed by 1669 people, mostly women (82%), and mostly 18-65 years (90.8%). Questionnaires asked about current (during the pandemic) and past (per-pandemic) mental health, stress, physical activity habits and barriers and motivators to physical activity as well as demographics.


3) Is there any other research out there that supports these findings or contradicts it? 

Many other studies have shown reductions in physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic across many countries with different lockdown timing and severity, and across all age groups. The relationship between physical activity and mental health is very well established, with studies showing that regular exercise is often more effective than medication at relieving depression symptoms. 


4) What’s the key takeaway for us to take from this research?

This study is interesting as it hints that there are divergent effects of the pandemic, for some people the pandemic increased motivators /reduced barriers and they became more active, and their mental health improved. But for others the reverse occurred, physical activity reduced as barriers increased and motivators decreased, and with that their mental health suffered. What we don’t know is why those different effects were seen, and that’s important, because as practitioners we want to know who it’s most important to support.

The research on physical activity effects of the current pandemic are often this style of internet based questionnaire, but they often bring bias. As here, often women are the predominant responders, they are usually highly educated and younger than the general population. This means we are missing a lot of information about other groups in society and need to consider ways to reach those in our work to understand and to support.