People who exercised in the pandemic had fewer mental problems – 03/09/2021

The covid-19 pandemic had a major impact on our lives and lifestyles in 2020 and continues today. Millions became sick and hundreds of thousands lost family members. However, everyone’s lifestyle was not affected in the same way.

Millions lost their jobs, while others saw a reduction in their working hours, which caused serious economic hardship. Still others started working or studying remotely. Most of these people spent a lot more time at home.

On the other hand, essential workers still needed to perform their functions, such as health professionals and deliverymen, who, in general, started to work longer hours.

During the pandemic, 4 out of 10 US adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. A research KFF Health Tracking of July 2020, found that many adults are reporting specific negative impacts on their mental health and well-being, such as difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increased alcohol consumption or substance use (12% ), and worsening of chronic conditions (12%), due to concern and stress with the coronavirus.

As the pandemic progresses, ongoing and necessary public health measures expose many people to situations related to poor mental health outcomes, such as isolation and job loss.

In addition, much of the population’s lifestyle has become more sedentary. Exercise habits changed as gyms closed and people stopped using public transport and walking or cycling to work.

However, some individuals began exercising at home and walking more around the neighborhood. Overall, early research shows that, for most individuals, physical activity has substantially reduced.

There are numerous studies on the chronic psychological benefits of exercise, and many of them are related to mood swings. For example, data from genome-wide association studies with 611,583 adult participants show that physical activity is a protective factor against the risk of developing Major Depressive Disorder.

A meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies suggests that the protective effects of physical activity against depression are comparable in young, adult, and elderly people worldwide. Population-based research studies, for example, have shown that those who exercise at least two to three times a week report significantly less stress, cynical suspicion and anger than less active individuals.

Added to a sedentary lifestyle, many families struggled to obtain nutritious food due to the fact that they were unemployed, having limited ability to buy food. In addition, children who received free and reduced meals at school were now at home and, consequently, did not have access to the necessary nutrition.

Normal patterns of food access and intake were negatively affected, likely resulting in fewer individuals reporting eating the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables, for example.

Thus, less physical activity, poor diet and increased stress are known risk factors for weight gain.

Therefore, there may be an increase in the percentage of people who are overweight and obese as a result of the pandemic. The increase in obesity is likely to occur in both children and adults, as children have stopped attending school, thus missing physical activity classes and sports programs.

Instead, they spent more sedentary hours looking at screens to study and even play with video games/computers/tablets.

According to an international study published (2021) in Frontiers in Psychology titled in “AA Cross-Cultural Exploratory Study of Health Behaviors and Wellbeing During COVID-19”, people around the world reported changes in their levels of physical activity, well-being and eating habits during the early stages of the pandemic.

A decrease in physical activity during the pandemic was associated with a worse perception of physical and mental health. Decreased exercise was also associated with perceptions of weight gain and decreased sleep. Increased physical activity was associated with better physical health, as assessed in the previous week, along with increased well-being and sleep.

In contrast, reduced physical activity was related to poorer mental health, represented by more personal and emotional problems, and a significant increase in diet and weight.

Another article published in 2020 by Brand et al titled in “When Pandemic Hits: Exercise Frequency and Subjective Well-Being During COVID-19 Pandemic” conducted a cross-sectional online survey of 13,696 respondents in 18 countries. The frequency of exercise before and how much, during the pandemic, it would influence mood was verified.

  • With regard to subjective well-being, the data show that those who exercised almost every day during the pandemic had the best mood, regardless of whether or not they did pre-pandemic exercise.
  • Those who were pre-pandemic inactive and slightly increased their exercise frequency during the pandemic reported no change in mood compared to those who remained inactive during the pandemic.
  • Those who reduced exercise frequency during the pandemic reported worsening mood compared to those who maintained or increased pre-pandemic exercise frequency.

This study suggests that under similar blocking conditions, about two-thirds of those who never or rarely exercise before a block may adopt an exercise behavior or increase their exercise frequency. However, such changes do not always immediately result in an improvement in subjective well-being.

These results can inform national policy as well as research on health behavior and exercise psychology about the importance of promoting exercise and predicting changes in exercise behavior during future pandemics.


– ACSM. American Fitness Index. Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Fitness Index Indicators. 2021.

– Ruiz, MC, et al. (2021) A Cross-Cultural Exploratory Study of Health Behaviors and Wellbeing During COVID-19. Frontiers in Psychology.

– Brand R, Timme S, Nosrat S. When Pandemic Hits: Exercise Frequency and Subjective Well-Being During COVID-19 Pandemic. Front Psychol. 2020 Sep 24;11:570567. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.570567. PMID: 33071902; PMCID: PMC7541696.

– Gloster AT, Lamnisos D, Lubenko J et al. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health: An international study. PLoS One. 2020 Dec 31;15(12):e0244809. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0244809. PMID: 33382859; PMCID: PMC7774914.

– Panchal N et al. The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. KFF. 2021.