While physical activity and exercise have long been prescribed by mental health experts as a way to help combat anxiety and depression, new research suggests staying active may not be enough when it comes to coping with pandemic-related stress.
The study, published recently by experts at Washington State University, involved analyzing data from more than 900 sets of twins. The researchers found that participants who reported a decrease in physical activity within two weeks after stay-at-home orders were put in place also a “perceived higher level of stress and anxiety.” But many of the study’s participants who upped their physical activity said they were stressed, too.
Older twins reported less stress, while female twins reported higher stress levels.
“It’s not necessarily that exercise won’t help you personally manage stress,” said Glen Duncan, the study’s lead author and a professor at Washington State University, in a press release. “It’s just that there is something genetically and environmentally linking the two.”
Dr. Jeffrey Cluver, a psychiatrist and the medical director of behavioral health at Trident Health, said exercise is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to dealing with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. But it’s not a cure-all and it must be done with regularity to yield any meaningful benefit.
“The limitation is that physical activity, regular exercise, can absolutely contribute to mental health and mental well-being. It’s not going to be a treatment in and of itself,” Cluver said. “It doesn’t eliminate the craziness we’ve all been dealing with.”
The type of exercise matters, too, he said. Research suggests that aerobic exercise — speed-walking, running, swimming and other higher-intensity activities that increase your heart rate and cause you to work up a sweat — is probably more beneficial when it comes to coping with stress. This type of exercise produces endorphins and triggers the body’s dopamine system, both of which are linked to mental health and mood, he said.
But regularity is just as much a part of the equation. “I actually plan my day around how I’m going to do it,” Cluver said. “It has to become part of a routine. Exercising once in a while is better than not doing it at all … but it being a routine and part of your lifestyle is when you really start seeing the benefits.”
Gyms in South Carolina were allowed to reopen in May and all of them are taking precautions to keep their patrons safe. At Planet Fitness, those measures include social distancing, peroxide spray, electrostatic spray and more. None of this, of course, eliminates the anxiety that some people have about working out in enclosed spaces while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
Janis Newton, director of the wellness center at the Medical University of South Carolina, said more and more of her members are coming back each day, but the gym still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic capacity.
She has encouraged people to start thinking about exercise less in terms of its physical health benefits and more in terms of mental health benefits. Also, she noted, 10 or 20 minutes of higher-intensity movement a day can be very beneficial for brain health. You don’t need to spend an hour or two at the gym to help relieve your sense of stress, she said.
“Our lives have changed,” Newton said. “We have to redefine how we manage this. Exercise, sleep, nutrition. All of those are so important.”
Like Planet Fitness, the wellness center at MUSC has reorganized its facility to accommodate clients who want to work out indoors safely.
“They’re very surprised at how safe it feels for them,” Newton said. “We’ve very fortunate because our rooms are very large.
Outside, on the wellness center’s rooftop, gym members can participate in boot camp, HIIT classes and shoot hoops.
Grace Beahm Alford contributed to this report. Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.