Pandemic provides opportunity for studying impact of exercise on mental health

The COVID-19 crisis has been hard on people’s mental and physical health. UBC’s School of Kinesiology is set to launch two separate studies that will examine the impact of exercise programs on mental health during the current crisis.

Woman planking

Woman planking in bleachers. Credit: Julia Ballew/Unsplash

The COVID-19 crisis has been hard on people’s mental and physical health. The situation is stressful, and physical distancing requirements have created challenges for those who exercise to relieve stress. With the easing of restrictions comes a new set of stresses.

Assistant Professor Eli Puterman and Professor Mark Beauchamp of UBC’s School of Kinesiology research the connection between physical activity and mental health. They are set to launch two separate studies that will examine the impact of exercise programs on mental health during the current crisis.

Eli Puterman
Eli Puterman

We spoke with them about this work.

How is the COVID-19 crisis changing people’s exercise habits?

EP: People have been using outdoor spaces to a greater extent and in more novel and interesting ways than I have seen before. But that’s the minority. The majority weren’t fully active before, but they were at least walking to their car or to their office or to the subway, and that has been reduced significantly. I think many of these people are suffering.

What are the consequences of that?

MB: For the study we’re about to launch, we’re partnering with a community centre in Vancouver. They made over 5,000 calls to reach out to older adults, and they said the overwhelming message that’s been coming through is how people are really struggling with mental health-related issues.

Mark Beauchamp
Mark Beauchamp

Do you think mental health will improve as restrictions ease and people leave their homes more?

EP: People are hoping that with this loosening of restrictions everything will go back to normal, but I am uncertain that will fully happen. They’re just opening up a few stores, but when you go into those stores, you’re thinking the whole time, “Does somebody here have COVID-19?” or, “Do I have COVID-19 and am I giving it to anyone?” I know for myself, going into the grocery store is that stressful moment on a weekly basis. So there’s going to be a lot of stress that some people might not even be aware that they’re experiencing.

What evidence is there that physical activity can improve mental health?

EP: Mark and I have a study under review that looked at physical activity in individuals providing care to a family member with Alzheimer’s disease. These are really high-stressed people who feel overwhelmed on a daily basis. That all changes in the men and women who became physically active over a six-month period. The current pandemic is a very different type of situation, but I think what it does suggest is that being physically active can really alter one’s mood, how much one ruminates, and how much control someone feels.

You’ve studied this before, but never during a pandemic. Mark, how will your study work?

MB: We’re trying to target inactive Canadians 65 and older, and we’re combining physical activity with social connectivity. People will take part in one of two programs. The first is a 12-week virtual group-based exercise program led by older adults, and we actually provide an opportunity to socially connect afterward over a coffee and provide support to one another online while remaining physically distant. The other is a 12-week personal exercise program where the instructors are again older adults, but it’s not a group or a social setting. We’ll be looking at a range of mental and physical health outcomes.

And how about your study, Eli?

EP: The project is looking at the impact of yoga or high-intensity interval training—or a combination of the two—on well-being and health during this pandemic. We have partnered with the Down Dog fitness app, which provides a diversity of workouts that change each time. They’re providing us free memberships for a three-month period for all 490 people who sign up. We’ll ask them to complete four workouts per week that are at least 20 minutes long and we’ll track their physical activity. We’ll also set up weekly surveys to tap into their well-being.

How can these studies help us?

MB: They can provide important insight in the here and now, and that’s why we’re running these trials now and trying to disseminate our findings quickly. But also, as the WHO and others point out, this is unlikely to be the only pandemic. If we can derive really worthwhile, evidence-informed interventions that are tested in the context of experiencing this, it will allow us to be better prepared to face future challenges.

Interested in participating? Adults from age 18-64 can visit to learn about Eli Puterman’s study. Older adults can visit for more information on Mark Beauchamp’s study.