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People Want to Improve Mental Health by Exercising But Are Blocked by Stress and Anxiety, Research Shows

A mindset of some exercise is better than none, and lowering intensity when feeling anxious are part of a toolset toward mental and physical health

HAMILTON, Ontario, April 12, 2021 — New research from McMaster University suggests the pandemic has created a paradox in which mental health has become both a motivator for and a barrier to physical activity.    

People want to be active to improve their mental health but find it difficult to exercise due to stress and anxiety, say the researchers who surveyed more than 1,600 subjects in an effort to understand how and why mental health, physical activity and sedentary behavior have changed throughout the course of the pandemic.  

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

After analyzing the data, the researchers designed an evidence-based toolkit which includes the following advice to get active:

  • Adopt a mindset of 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 minimize the burden of the pandemic and prevent the development of a mental health crisis,” Heisz said.