As we continue to struggle to flatten the coronavirus curve by implementing different protective measures, another health crisis is brewing as we become more isolated and less mobile than before the pandemic. COVID-19 is having a ripple effect on various aspects of our well-being that aren’t specifically associated with contracting the virus. Moreover, we are facing the reality that the virus is not going to go away any time soon.
Many of us are struggling as a result of the pandemic: physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. There is an elixir, however, that's been accessible to help mitigate these ails even before COVID-19. Regular physical exercise is emerging as one of the most protective factors—a vital part of an overarching strategy to promote and preserve our health and productivity in the ongoing struggle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Exercise for physical fitness during COVID-19
This epidemic has forced many of us to spend more time at home, sitting down and abandoning our regular exercise routines. Experts are warning that this sudden change of behavior toward a more sedentary lifestyle is putting our health at risk. The World Health Organization is renewing the call-to-action that we stay active in line with the established recommendations for physical activity.
Furthermore, physical inactivity is a risk factor for many chronic conditions that contribute to the severity of COVID-19 (if you, unfortunately, contract the virus), e.g., cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and chronic lung disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that patients with underlying health conditions are six times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19. They also have a 12 times higher death rate compared to people with no underlying conditions.
We possess the ability to manage most of these lifestyle conditions by increasing our physical activity and fitness. Thus, COVID-19 prevention might now be, and rightly so, an additional motive for us all to improve our physical fitness.
Exercise for mental health during COVID-19
Although significant media attention is focusing on the physical consequences of COVID-19, there is clearly also a growing mental health crisis brewing.
Survey after survey shows we are living with greater fear, worry, and psychological stress since the beginning of the epidemic. The adverse effects of lockdown on our collective mental health are apparent worldwide. The primary mental health complaints include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorders
- Anger and irritability
- Difficulty concentrating
Some studies have compared the lockdown experience to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For instance, in Italy, a study that included over 18,000 people found that almost 40% were exhibiting PTSD symptoms following COVID-19 measures. Similar results have been recorded in other countries, too.
So, what can we do to preserve our well-being in crises such as the coronavirus?
Volumes of research prove the benefits of engaging in regular exercise. Engaging in activity and prosocial behavior is one of the best ways to preserve our physical and mental health. New evidence, specific to COVID-19, is now being gathered. Dr. Pedro Silva Moreira of the University of Minho in Portugal and his colleagues studied different elements that can protect people's mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak. Their results showed that regular physical exercise seems to be vital now more than ever. Those who are physically active appear to fare better in terms of mental health issues (related to the pandemic) than those who are not exercising. There is strong evidence to suggest that physical exercise helps prevent the adverse effects on mental health brought on by the stress of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Social and emotional well-being through regular exercise
Let’s not forget the feelings of loneliness and boredom that are also common during our lockdown. Changes in emotional states and typical behavior are being experienced by most of us. Younger people, in particular, are suffering because of social distancing measures. Multiple studies have shown health clubs are a safe place to mitigate some of these concerns if the 4W’s (wash your hands, wear a mask, workout six feet apart, and wipe your equipment) are observed. Exercising in a real physical environment with other people helps build physical and mental resilience through safe social connection and participation in activity. Working out is also a good distraction from our current reality—a meaningful activity that can replace other fun activities that are possibly limited due to COVID-19 safety measures.
New exercise regimens that meet the safety requirements of the pandemic necessitate some creative adaptations. Nonetheless, the new health threats of COVID-19 have highlighted the fact that we need to do whatever it takes to engage in exercise and renewed our focus on the importance of keeping ourselves healthy. In fact, the physical, psychological, emotional, and social gains of physical exercise are more important now than ever have been before.
Sources and further reading
Sasaki, N., Kawakami, N., Kuroda, R., & Tsuno, K. (2020). Workplace responses to COVID-19 associated with mental health and work performance of employees in Japan. Journal of Occupational Health, 62(1), e12134. https://doi.org/10.1002/1348-9585.12134
Jiménez-Pavón, D., Carbonell-Baeza, A., & Lavie, C. J. (2020). Physical exercise as therapy to fight against the mental and physical consequences of COVID-19 quarantine: Special focus in older people. Progress in cardiovascular diseases, S0033-0620(20)30063-3. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2020.03.009
Pieh, C., Budimir, S., & Probst, T. (2020). The effect of age, gender, income, work, and physical activity on mental health during coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown in Austria. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 136, 110186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.110186
Rossi, R. et al. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures impact on mental health among the general population in Italy. An N=18147 web-based survey. Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.09.20057802
Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a
Moreira, P.S. et al. (2020). Protective elements of mental health status during the COVID-19 outbreak in the Portuguese population. Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.28.20080671
Orgilés, M., Morales, A., Delvecchio, E., Mazzeschi, C., & Espada, J. P. (2020). Immediate psychological effects of the COVID-19 quarantine in youth from Italy and Spain. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/5bpfz
Unger J.B., Johnson C.A. (1995). Social relationships and physical activity in health club members. American Journal of Health Promotion, 9(5),340-343. https://doi.org:10.4278/0890-1171-9.5.340
Written by: Mike Rucker, Ph.D. | Chief Digital Officer
Mike Rucker, Ph.D., is Active’s Chief Digital Officer as well as the resident “fun” expert. By day, he strategizes innovation. By night, he is working on a book about the science of fun called The Fun Habit, being released by Simon and Schuster in 2023.
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