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If Your Daily Walk Isn't Curing Your COVID-19 Depression, You're Not Alone

Person working out at home.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study finds a strong link between depression symptoms and decreased exercise in college students during the pandemic.
  • Short-term exercise intervention didn't reduce depression symptoms.
  • Regular exercise is important for overall health, and experts recommend aiming for 150-300 minutes of physical exercise per week.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought drastic changes to our day to day, especially in how often we move our bodies. But a more sedentary lifestyle can have detrimental effects on our health and minds. A recent study links decreased exercise during the pandemic to increased depression in college students.

Researchers were in a unique position to study this phenomenon, since they had already been following students a year before the pandemic was officially declared in the U.S. When March 2020 forced people indoors, they saw a near-doubling of depression scores—from 32% to 61%.

Looking a little closer, they found that those most vulnerable for developing depression had not maintained previous physical activity levels.

"Before the pandemic, people were walking about 10,000 steps per day, which is the recommended guideline," Silvia Saccardo, PhD, study author and professor in the department of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, tells Verywell. "It went down to about 4,600 during the pandemic, so we saw a huge decrease."

Participants were also provided with biometric devices like Fitbit to measure sleep and screen time and answered mental health questionnaires. Even when factoring in this different data, Saccardo says one correlation is the strongest: "Our data really pointed to a link between reductions in physical activity and reductions in mental health."

The study was published in early March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

What This Means For You

If you find that pandemic-related lifestyle changes are affecting your mental health, try talking to your healthcare provider about ways to adapt. Experts are now recommending building up to 150-300 minutes of exercise a week, whether it be walking, running, stationary biking, at-home yoga—anything to get you moving. For free at-home exercise videos, you can check out YouTube for a variety of options.

Daily Patterns Influence Mental Health

Researchers followed 682 college-aged students (18-24) from February 2019 through July 2020. This timeline put them in a spot to compare lifestyle and mental health before and during the pandemic.

Students tracked their daily activity on Fitbits and answered questionnaires regarding their mental health. "We used a validated scale to measure symptoms of depression, with questions such as 'I see no hope,' or 'I feel hopeless, I'm unhappy, I can't sleep, I can't eat,'" Saccardo explains.

Before the pandemic, about a third of participants were scoring high on the depression scales. But in March and April, that statistic jumped to two-thirds. Those who were able to maintain pre-pandemic physical activity were less likely to be depressed.

Other findings include sleep time increasing by 25 to 30 minutes per night, with students generally waking up later. Time spent socializing also declined by more than half to less than 30 minutes per day, with screen time doubling to five or more hours a day. Still, these factors were not as strongly tied to depression as exercise. "Our study highlights that disruptions in physical activity and mental health are tightly related," Saccardo adds.

Do Exercise Interventions Help?

Because mental health and depression were so strongly correlated, Saccardo and her colleagues attempted to see if they could influence mental health by incentivizing more exercise.

In June, she says, they offered half the participants rewards to increase their walking time. "We told them, 'if you walk 10,000 steps per day for the next two weeks, we will pay you $5 every day.'" While the reward was successful in getting people to move, it did not lower their depression scores.

While the intervention didn't reverse the pandemic's mental health impacts, its lack of effect on depression levels could be due to the brevity or nature of the exercise. "We acknowledge that our intervention wasn't very long—it was just two weeks," Saccardo says. People didn't always walk on consecutive days either, and again—it was just walking 10,000 steps.

"Maybe these people who showed large disruptions in physical activity weren't just walking around," Saccardo says. "Maybe they were playing sports or going to the gym and exercising in social environments." Since a lot of habits were disrupted by the pandemic, Saccardo concludes, "There could be a lot of things that need to be restored simultaneously in order to restore well-being."

Tailoring Your Exercise to You

Regular exercise is important to overall well-being, but it doesn't have to be just one type of exercise or the kind you did pre-pandemic. Saccardo says recent disruptions in daily life pose an opportunity to adapt.

"For example, for me, I used to go to the gym before the pandemic began," she says. "Now, I'm just doing the same thing but with online classes, and I'm not sure I want to go back."

"I kind of got lucky out of this," William Roberts, MD, MS, professor and director of faculty affairs in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota, tells Verywell. Roberts considers himself "lucky" because he finds that he's actually doing more exercise during the pandemic, with access to home equipment and space to walk outside.

When recommending exercise regimens for patients, Roberts likes to keep it simple while focusing on what each person has—or can make—available. "Many people know somebody who's got an exercise machine they're not using," he says. "Borrow it. That's the cheapest way to do it in the house." He also notes that his daughters use stationary bikes to compete with and motivate one another.

If you can find open places to walk, do it. Walking delivers a lot of benefits, Roberts says. "If you feel it's not enough, put a backpack on and throw some weights in it." If you only have access to more crowded places, he says just mask up and keep your distance.

In general, whatever physical activity works for you is the right one. And there's no need to stick by the typical 30 minutes, three times a week rule of thumb, which only applies to high-intensity exercise. "We've really changed the recommendation to building up to 150 to 300 minutes a week of some physical activity in blocks as small as five to 10 minutes," Roberts says. "If you can accumulate that over a week, that's better for health."

"Doing something is better than nothing," Roberts adds, and if you're someone who can only find time to exercise during the weekend—"just do it. You may exercise longer, but if you can get into that 150 to 300 minutes on the weekends and not during the week, it's okay."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Giuntella O, Hyde K, Saccardo S, Sadoff S. Lifestyle and mental health disruptions during COVID-19. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2021;118(9):e2016632118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2016632118

  2. Giuntella O, Hyde K, Saccardo S, Sadoff S. Lifestyle and mental health disruptions during COVID-19. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2021;118(9):e2016632118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2016632118