New research from McMaster University suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic created a paradox where mental health has become a motivator as well as a barrier to physical activity. Is there a way to stick to a regular cycling routine even when times are tough? The researchers offered their advice.

The researchers surveyed 1,669 subjects to try and understand how and why mental health, physical activity and sedentary behaviour have changed throughout the course of the pandemic.

“Maintaining a regular exercise programme is difficult at the best of times and the conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may be making it even more difficult,” said Jennifer Heisz, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster.

Cycling
Keeping your routine is not easy, but important for your mental health. © Profimedia

Activity decreased and stress increased

The study found that the respondents were less physically active during COVID-19. Aerobic activity declined by 11% and strength-based activity by 30%, while sedentary behaviour increased by 11% compared to six months before the pandemic. The pandemic also resulted in a 22% increase in psychological stress.

A decline in physical activity led to worse mental health

The study observed that those who reported the greatest declines in physical activity also experienced the worst mental health outcomes. The majority of respondents were unmotivated to exercise because they were too anxious, lacked social support, or had limited access to equipment or space.

“Even though exercise comes with the promise of reducing anxiety, many respondents felt too anxious to exercise. Likewise, although exercise reduces depression, respondents who were more depressed were less motivated to get active, and lack of motivation is a symptom of depression,” said Heisz.

Mental health was the biggest motivator for exercise

Respondents who maintained their physical activity levels fared much better mentally. They reported feeling less motivated by physical health outcomes such as weight loss or strength and instead more motivated by mental health outcomes such as anxiety relief.

Cycling in the mountains
The fact that cycling could safely be done in pairs or groups was a crucial element that has offered positive mental health benefits since the pandemic took hold in early 2020. © Profimedia

Younger adults were most affected

Researchers also found that economic situations played a role, particularly among younger adults.

“Just like other aspects of the pandemic, some demographics are hit harder than others and here it is people with lower income who are struggling to meet their physical activity goals. It is plausible that younger adults who typically work longer hours and earn less are lacking both time and space which is taking a toll,” said Maryam Marashi, co-lead author of the study.

How to keep cycling in times of stress and anxiety?

The researchers designed an evidence-based toolkit to help. If you are struggling to stick with regular cycling, check if you follow all of this advice.

  • Adopt a mindset: Some exercise is better than none.
  • Lower exercise intensity if feeling anxious.
  • Move a little every day.
  • Break up sedentary time with standing or movement breaks.
  • Plan your workouts like appointments by blocking off the time in your calendar.

“Our results point to the need for additional psychological supports to help people maintain their physical activity levels during stressful times in order to minimise the burden of the pandemic and prevent the development of a mental health crisis,” said Heisz.