Fitness: Gym closings can affect the mind as much as the body

Finding creative ways to make physical activity safe should be prioritized before another virus or wave hits.

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The longer gyms were closed during waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, the more exercise enthusiasts voiced concerns about their mental health. Repeated disruptions to their fitness routine and lack of social connection with fellow exercisers took a toll on their quality of life, they said. And while the pandemic has fuelled a new industry of online workouts, for many the gym is home — not just home to their favourite exercise machines, but to a community of like-minded folks who thrive on the sights, sounds and camaraderie of their neighbourhood fitness hangout.

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Exercise has long been accepted as an important component of physical health, but the last decade has seen more and more acknowledgment that it also contributes to mental health. The connection between physical activity and mental well-being has been substantiated by a growing body of research. And an increasing number of mental health professionals are prescribing exercise to people suffering from depression and anxiety, and are also promoting exercise as a preventive measure against declining mental health.

So, what happens when gyms are shut and recreational sports suspended? According to a review of 31 studies examining the impact of a decrease in physical activity during the first year of the pandemic, worries about mental health are justified.

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“Physical activity has been a good and effective choice to mitigate the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the authors of the review, published in BMC Public Health. “Overall, the studies suggested that higher physical activity is associated with higher well-being, quality of life as well as lower depressive symptoms, anxiety and stress, independently of age.”

But unlike the universally recommended prescription of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week to improve physical health, the research team noted there’s no clear consensus regarding what frequency, duration and type of exercise is required to benefit mental health.

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That doesn’t mean we’re totally in the dark about the relationship between exercise and mood. Evidence suggests workouts as short as 20 minutes can improve mood and lessen anxiety for several hours. And aerobic exercise, resistance training and mind/body activities like yoga all have similar impact when it comes to enhancing mood and reducing anxiety. In fact, superior fitness isn’t the ultimate goal when it comes to exercising for better mental health; rather, it’s exercise itself that makes the difference.

What is it about a workout that has such a positive effect on mood? Several studies point to key physiological changes triggered by exercise, including a rush of mood-enhancing endorphins and a release of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. In fact, exercise is thought to work in a similar way to antidepressants, which is why there’s growing consensus that exercise can be as effective as some medications in managing light to moderate depression.

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There’s also a psychological component to the role exercise plays in treating depression and anxiety. Experts point to the heightened ability to tune out or dampen negative or worrying thoughts while working up a sweat. Also worth noting is the mood-enhancing social component of exercising with your peers and the boost in self-esteem associated with finishing a tough workout, achieving fitness goals or mastering an athletic skill. Even something as simple as getting a better night’s sleep after a workout can contribute to improved mental health.

Exercise doesn’t just have a short-term effect on mood. Active people regularly report lower levels of depression compared to the general population. But when someone is faced with the sudden cessation of an active lifestyle, as experienced during the pandemic, the protective effects of exercise seem to wear off. Which is why so many active Canadians have reported deteriorating mental health over the last two years when access to gyms and recreational sports was cut off. And since the mood-lifting effects of exercise have been reported in the young and old, limited access to recreation and sports can affect the population as a whole.

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Keep in mind that not all homes are conducive to working up a sweat. Downstairs neighbours, limited space and isolation are just some of the reasons why gyms are such popular places. And not everyone can afford to jump on the Peloton bandwagon. It’s also clear that physical education classes have no place on Zoom.

So, what’s the answer if we’re faced with another virus or wave that threatens to keep everyone home? Finding creative ways to make physical activity safe should be prioritized at the municipal and provincial levels, with new options ready to be announced if sports and gyms are to be affected. Many gyms and recreation centres could have remained open or expanded the opportunities to exercise, with individual gym workouts and family bubble-based activities scheduled.

Those aren’t perfect solutions, but they would have offered more chances for Canadians to work up a sweat. When it comes to promoting the health benefits of an active lifestyle and safeguarding mental health, access speaks louder than words.

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