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Infectious Diseases

Updated 15 September 2020

Stress from Covid-19 may be hard to shake, even with exercise

While exercise can help to reduce anxiety and stress, it may not be enough to deal with the stress caused by Covid-19, researchers found.

  • Exercise can have a great impact on your mental and physical health, and lower stress
  • In Covid-19 related stress, however, researchers found that even with exercise, stress and anxiety levels stayed the same
  • But this was only over the short term, and exercise shouldn't be completely ruled out

Exercise has many physical and mental benefits and may offer much-needed structure and routine to your day, especially while working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

But if your stress and anxiety levels are through the roof because of Covid-19, even exercise may not be enough to alleviate this, researchers from Washington State University have found.

Analysing twins

In a study, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers looked at data from over 900 pairs of identical and same-sex fraternal twins from the Washington State Twin Registry.

Those who did less exercise within two weeks after stay-at-home orders were announced, had perceived higher levels of stress and anxiety. But, contrary to expectation, those who increased their levels of physical exercise during the same period did not experience lower levels of stress and anxiety.

"Certainly, people who don't exercise know that there are associations with mental health outcomes, yet the ones that increased their exercise also reported increased anxiety and stress," said lead author Glen Duncan, a professor in WSU's Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in a press release. "It's hard to know exactly what's going on, but it could be that they are trying to use exercise as a means to counter that stress and anxiety they're feeling because of COVID."

Both genetics and environmental factors

The reason why the researchers decided to use twins was to investigate whether the associations between changes in physical activity and mental health were influenced by genetic traits, environmental factors or both.

They found that both genetic and environmental factors accounted for the association between less exercise and stress. And where one twin did less exercise and experienced increased levels of stress, the other twin’s stress levels didn’t decrease with more exercise. "It's not necessarily that exercise won't help you personally manage stress," said Duncan. "It's just that there is something genetically and environmentally linking the two."

Exercise can still benefit mental health

The researchers stated that even though exercise didn’t drastically decrease stress levels in the short term, they are planning to do the survey again to see the effect of exercise in the long term.

"At least in the short term, it seems there is not a lot of impact from either decreasing or increasing physical activity in terms of handling stress and anxiety, but that might be different after two or three months under Covid restrictions," Duncan said.

How can you cope during the pandemic?

While restrictions have been lifted in Level 2 lockdown in South Africa, Covid-19 still continues to have repercussions, whether it’s financial strain, or worrying about ill family members, or an uncertain future.

According to Professor Renata Schoeman, you should consider reaching out for professional help if you are increasingly suffering from anxiety, depression or stress.

And while exercise may not completely get rid of any Covid-19 stress, it will still boost your mental and physical health.

When you work from home, it might feel like you can't get a moment to yourself. If you struggle to set aside a full hour for exercise, do short bursts of activity during the course of the day. Tend to the garden, do a bit of housecleaning, or play with your pets in the garden, or dance around the lounge with your children. When you feel the endorphins kicking in, you will be inspired to carry on.

READ | Anxiety, overeating and under-exercising - the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on SA 

READ | Could isolation make you more susceptible to Covid-19? Experts look at the psychological factors

READ | Lost your motivation to eat healthy, exercise during the pandemic? You are not alone

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