Yes, Exercise Improves Mental Ill-Health, But What Happens When Anxiety Gets In The Way? Leave a comment


Photo credit: HRAUN - Getty Images

Photo credit: HRAUN – Getty Images

It’s no secret that exercise holds the power to improve your mental strength, but with one in eight men fighting mental ill-health, the fight for a stronger mind is often an uphill battle.

On top of this, new McMaster University research has found that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created a ‘paradox’ where mental health can be both instrumental and detrimental to starting physical activity and exercise. Simply put, people want to be active — but stress and anxiety often get in the way.

To draw this conclusion, the McMaster University researchers surveyed over 1600 subjects to better understand how mental health affected physical activity — and thereby sedentary behaviour — over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Maintaining a regular exercise program is difficult at the best of times and the conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may be making it even more difficult,” explained Jennifer Heisz, study lead author and associate professor at the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University.

“Even though exercise comes with the promise of reducing anxiety, many respondents felt too anxious to exercise. Likewise, although exercise reduces depression, respondents who were more depressed were less motivated to get active, and lack of motivation is a symptom of depression.”

Over the course of the study, participants were found to have increased psychological stress, moderate levels of anxiety and moderate levels of depression with time spent doing aerobic activity down by 20 minutes per week and strength training down by 30 minutes. Each was a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw gyms, health clubs and fitness centres shut down around the world. Generally, the study found that the participants with declines in physical activity correlated with poorer mental ill-health. The opposite was true, too — higher levels of exercise matched with healthier minds.

“Our results point to the need for additional psychological supports to help people maintain their physical activity levels during stressful times in order to minimize the burden of the pandemic and prevent the development of a mental health crisis,” explained Heisz. Once the study had wrapped, the researchers offered a five-step approach to using exercise as a tool for a stronger mind:

  • Adopt a mindset: Some exercise is better than none

  • Lower exercise intensity if feeling anxious

  • Move a little every day

  • Break up sedentary time with standing or movement breaks

  • Plan your workouts like appointments by blocking off the time in your calendar

The McMaster University research results are a similar match to a Washington University School of Medicine study, which proved that the more muscle strength that men have, the less frequently they think about suicide. The team examined data from 9000 adults, who squeezed a gripper to record their maximum strength and shared how many times they had thought about taking their own life in the previous two weeks. For every additional five kilos that the men could grip, their likelihood of suicidal ideation decreased by 16 per cent.

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