- Depression rates saw a steep incline by 90% from March 2020 to June 2020
- Subjects’ average steps decreased from 10,000 to 4,600 steps per day
- Depression rates among young adults became twice the rate of the general population
Physical activity decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to increased depression.
The study was conducted on 682 college students from multiple cohorts before (February 2019) and during the pandemic (July2020). Participants answered multiple surveys about their well-being and time use. They also received wearable devices (Fitbit) and installed a custom-made smartphone application on their phone to track activity levels.
Compared to pre-pandemic levels, depression rates saw a steep incline by 90% from March 2020 to June 2020. Fitbit data was used to understand mobility's role in mental health.
Additionally, sleep increased by 25 to 30 minutes per night, time spent socializing decreased by more than half (less than 30 minutes per day), and screen time doubled to five or more hours per day.
Further analysis revealed that large declines in physical activity during COVID-19 were most strongly associated with higher rates of depression.
People at most risk for depression were those who experienced declines of one to two hours of physical activity per day during the pandemic, while those who were able to maintain their daily habits were at the lowest risk.
The research also revealed short-term restoration of exercise does not meaningfully improve mental well-being.
"This raises many possible explanations, including that the impact of physical activity may require a longer-term intervention," said co-author Sally Sadoff. "At the same time, our results clearly show that those who maintained physical exercise throughout the pandemic were the most resilient and least likely to suffer from depression."
Sadoff added there is a 15 to 18 percentage point difference in depression rates between participants who experienced large disruptions to their mobility, compared those who maintained their habits.
The researchers highlight the increase in depression rates among young adults (ages 18-24) during the pandemic, which is twice the rate in the general population.
According to the US CDC, around 33% of US adults suffered from anxiety or depression as of June 2020. Over 60% of young adults are at a risk of depression or anxiety, 25% reported considering suicide in the previous month.
"This relationship is one that only emerges during the pandemic," the authors note. "Before the pandemic, there was not a very strong connection between changes in physical activity and mental health, but our analyses suggest that disruption to physical activity is a leading risk factor for depression during this period."
The research team conducted a randomized experiment to investigate whether a policy intervention could reverse some of the pandemic's negative impacts on mental health.
In the experiment, half of the participants were given incentives to walk at least 10,000 steps per day for two weeks, resulting in a substantial increase in their average steps by about 2,300 steps per day and physical activity by almost 40 min per day, compared to the other half of subjects.
Nevertheless, this impact on exercise did not improve mental health, and the students did not keep up the physical activity after the two-week period ended.
"Physical activity may have important interactions with other lifestyle behaviors such as social interactions," the authors write. "It could also be the case that the relationship between physical activity and depression is driven more by mental health than it is by lifestyle habits."
They state that further research is required to improve both physical and mental health during such periods of large disruption.
- Lifestyle and mental health disruptions during COVID-19: OseaGiuntellaetal: PNAS 2021: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2016632118
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