The most physically active people fared less well during the pandemic

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Physically active people who increased their activity level early in the pandemic had poorer mental health than those who delayed increasing their physical activity.

When the world went dark in March 2020, many of us cut back on our exercise and other physical activities. Those COVID pounds have sparked interest, and many of us still haven’t gotten rid of them.

But it could have been worse.

According to some recent research findings, forcing too much physical activity too early in the pandemic might not be healthy either.

Physically active people also struggled

NTNU researchers looked at how the mental health of physically active adults progressed during the first phase of the pandemic. Physically active people generally have better mental health than inactive people.

The researchers collected the first data in June 2020, just a few months after the shutdown, and then again six months later. The participants were members of Kondis, a Norwegian organization for cardio exercise.

Women’s anxiety symptoms remained stable, but men’s anxiety symptoms increased. Both sexes had several symptoms of depression.

The research results therefore showed that the pandemic was also associated with poorer mental health for the physically active population. People who reduced the amount of exercise they did had the most symptoms of depression.

The most active individuals suffered the most mentally

The researchers also found something unexpected.

Those who increased their amount of exercise early after the lockdown in March also experienced the biggest increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression six months after the pandemic erupted.

“The mental health of physically active people who increased their activity level just over six months after the onset of the pandemic deteriorated more than that of people who did not begin to exercise more” says Audun Havnen, an associate professor in NTNU’s Department of Psychology.

Thus, the people who worked the earliest in the pandemic suffered the most mentally of all physically active people.

“In other words, pushing ourselves to exercise a lot doesn’t always contribute positively to our mental health,” says Linda Ernstsen, associate professor in the Department of Public Health and Nursing at NTNU.

Exercise is generally also good for our mental health, but doing too much of it could have downsides

Certain personality traits?

Despite the results of the study, the researchers are somewhat cautious about issuing strong conclusions. Indeed, the context could be reversed.

“It could be that people who train above average have personality traits that make them more vulnerable in terms of mental health,” says Havnen.

A large Swedish study of nearly 400,000 participants in the Vasaloppet, the world’s largest cross-country ski race, seems to indicate just that.

The NTNU study results also show that people who reported a reduced amount of exercise early in the pandemic had the relatively highest level of symptoms of anxiety and depression.

At the same time, the entire study sample had a significantly lower incidence of mental illness compared to the general population.

Physical activity has great benefits

It is important to note that all 855 study participants were physically active.

The study made no comparisons with people who engage in little or no physical activity. Inactive people generally fare worse.

“Physically active people tend to struggle less with depression and anxiety,” Ernstsen says.

Exercise and other physical activities undoubtedly have many benefits. They promote better mood and better sleep, and track all kinds of daily life tasks. Exercise reduces the risk of many different diseases – and if you still get sick, physical activity can aid recovery.

But it seems there might be a limit, and pushing our physical limits doesn’t always feel so good either.

Reference:

Audun Havenen and Linda Ernstsen. Does change in physical activity during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic predict psychological symptoms in physically active adults? A six-month longitudinal study, International Journal of Public Health2022. DOI: 10.3389/ijph.2022.1604528

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