Physical and mental health are separate but equally important parts of overall well-being. Despite their distinct nature, each relies on the other: physical health affects mental health and vice versa.

Research teams from McMaster University and the University of Ottawa Heart Institute explored how the COVID-19 pandemic has fractured the links between physical and mental health, and how women were especially impacted. While this work focused on the obstacles to physical activity during the pandemic, inaccessibility to exercise was a problem – particularly for women – before COVID-19. Researchers have come up with strategies to maintain physical and mental health, not only during a global pandemic, but also when other barriers limit access.

Mind-Body Connection

Researchers from McMaster University used an online survey of 1,669 people to measure the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on exercise habits. During the first 4 months of the pandemic, aerobic activity declined by an average of 22 minutes per week and strength training by 32 minutes.

In addition to the negative impact decreased exercise has on physical health, mental health was also adversely affected.  Compared to the 6 months prior to the pandemic, 22% of respondents reported an increase in psychological stress. Those whose mental health was most negatively impacted reported the lowest rates of regular exercise. People who maintained or increased their physical activity claimed a strong motivation to decrease stress and improve mental health. Overall, the study found a tight relationship between physical and mental wellness, with each impacting the other in an endless circle of health.

young black man wearing athletic wear sitting in the park exercising yoga
The pandemic reduced levels of physical activity, which had a negative impact on mental health.

Inequality of Risk

Work by post-doctoral researcher Dr. Carley O’Neill at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute focused on the relationship between physical and mental health in women.

“Women continue to be primarily responsible for caregiving roles and many of these responsibilities were amplified during the pandemic,” notes Dr. O’Neill. “For example, childcare facilities were closed, at-home learning was required​, elderly family members or friends required more support to limit their time outside of their homes and therefore, women were tasked with rising to meet these increased demands.”

The disproportionate family responsibilities taken on by women, coupled with higher levels of financial instability, means women are more likely to experience burnout and psychological stress – risks that were heightened by the pandemic.

Dr. O’Neill points out that making time to prioritize their own physical health became even more difficult for women than pre-pandemic times. Lack of physical activity is a risk for mental health challenges, and the burden of mental health issues that were worsened by the pandemic increased the risk even higher.

Breaking the Cycle

Dr. O’Neil and her colleagues reviewed the challenges to mental and physical health faced by women and offered solutions to improve access to exercise programs.

“Flexibility is key to improving access to exercise programs for both men and women during and beyond a pandemic,” said Dr. O’Neill. “This would include flexible times in which exercise programs are offered, utilizing a variety of in-person and virtual platforms, and program offerings that allow the entire family to join such as pre-recorded videos in which children could participate at their own pace.”

Material available online could be used to create exercise plans that include friends and family, and provides a low-cost alternative to fitness centers, while still promoting social interactions and providing physical benefits. The University of Ottawa Heart Institute has freely available exercise videos developed by the Exercise Physiology and Cardiovascular Health Lab, that include modifications for all abilities. These videos were created as part of the Jump in for Women’s Heart Health initiative, but they can be completed by anyone looking for a great workout.

Multi-ethnic group of people taking an online fitness class from the comfort of their own home during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Online fitness classes are low-cost and stimulate both physical activity and social interaction.

The explosion of online communication tools like Zoom, WebEx, and Teams that employers use to keep employees connected to the office have also been successfully exploited to create social networks for exercise programs. Online classes with a local gym or even an informal program among a group of friends offers the opportunity to get the physical exercise that keeps people healthy year-round, while maintaining social connections to sustain mental health. Virtual exercise classes may be new to some, but these at home programs were increasing in popularity before COVID-19 and studies show that online classes produce similar health benefits as in-person classes.

For people with cardiovascular disease, the Exercise Physiology and Cardiovascular Health Lab and colleagues put together a collection of recommendations, tools and resources to help get exercise without over-doing it. Among the tips are suggestions on how to track and monitor exercise, recommendations on reducing sedentary behaviour, and sample exercise programs for beginner and intermediate exercisers. These resources are designed to help people who are confined to home during the pandemic, but they are easily applicable to anyone whose access to fitness programs is limited because of health, time, mobility, or finances.

Standing Hurdles

Long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, there were many obstacles to exercise. Chief among the reasons for not exercising were a lack of time and boredom with limited routines. Experts recommend that people develop short duration programs to allow for time flexibility, and mix-up activities like walking, resistance training, and aerobic exercise to provide a more enjoyable variety. Using exercise trackers, fitness diaries, or virtual coaching can increase motivation and allow for setting and tracking of personal goals.

The use of free, online resources is a great opportunity for many to maintain both physical and mental health during times of isolation, but there are still significant obstacles for those at greatest risk. For example, despite the ease and convenience of accessing exercise programs through internet connections, inequities in connectivity across geographical areas and economic groups presents a real barrier for some, in particular women who are over-represented among the lower socioeconomic levels of society.

“The pandemic has shown us how wonderful technology can be for creating opportunities for physical activity,” says Dr. O’Neill. “The challenge now is ensuring everyone has equal access to such technology in order to participate and thus, reap the mental and physical health benefits associated with regular physical activity.”

Collage of sporty woman doing various exercises. In background gray wall, copy space. Part of series.
Experts recommend a mix-up activities like walking, resistance training, and aerobic exercise to provide a more enjoyable exercise variety.

Conclusion

Some studies have reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to exercise less, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other conditions that can be reduced with regular exercise. The lack of exercise has mental health implications that may negatively impact the motivation to exercise, creating a dangerous downward spiral of health.

Interestingly, some pre-pandemic studies also reported the lack of motivation as a reason for avoiding exercise, and the level was twice as high before COVID-19 as was reported during the pandemic. Together, these studies suggest that while the pandemic has focused our attention on the importance of exercise on physical and mental health, the challenge of getting enough exercise to benefit our physical and mental health existed before COVID-19, and will likely continue after the pandemic ends.

Fortunately, some advancements like the increased use of online communication platforms that emerged during the pandemic may provide lasting tools to tackle the problems of insufficient exercise. Whether programs are run through fitness clubs, online subscription services, or just informal groups of friends, virtual exercise programs offer the convenience and flexibility many are seeking. The physical benefits of exercise have a positive impact on our mental health, but so do the social interactions that many seek out as part of their workout routines.

Hopefully, the increased availability of online exercise resources is a silver lining of the global pandemic that remains long after COVID-19 fades away.