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Improve Mental Health through Physical Activity

By Joe Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults (52 million Americans) is grappling with mental illness per the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services aimed at addressing quality and availability of treatment and rehabilitative services related to substance abuse and mental illnesses.

The convergence of public health, economic, and societal crises in 2020 served as a watershed moment that inequality and disparities in resources exist, but more harrowingly that our country is panged by an illness significantly more widespread than COVID-19 and perhaps less reported than the common cold.

Ostensibly, events over the past 18 months have exacerbated pre-existing mental illnesses while spawning an incalculable cluster of mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.

In its Stress in AmericaTM 2020 report, the American Psychological Association reported that 78% of Americans consider the coronavirus pandemic as a significant stressor within the lives, while 60% indicate the issues America is facing overwhelms them. One in five adults reported that their mental health is worse than it was the prior year.

Paralleling issues have been observed within the workforce over the past year as stress associated with perception of safety, pathogen transmission risk concerns and deployment of transmission risk mitigation measures resulting in quarantine, confinement and social exclusion, misinformation, and actual or potential financial impact and job insecurity. Additionally, dependent care needs mounted amid COVID-19 as many schools were closed nationwide as a measure to thwart the spread of the virus.

Healthcare workers were most adversely impacted by COVID-19. A meta-analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Ottawa comprised of 189,159 subjects revealed a 16% percent prevalence of depression and a 15% prevalence of anxiety. Another meta-analysis of cross-sectional studies involving healthcare workers with a cumulative sample size of 13,641 generated the following outcomes expressed as percentages of the subject pool: stress (40.6%), depression (32%), and insomnia (38%). Leisure and hospitality workers and those in customer-facing roles faced similar procedural driven depression and anxiety causing stressors as a result of COVID-19.

Attendant with developing familial and occupational demands were diminished practice of health behaviors, specifically engagement in physical activity. Regular physical activity has been traditionally accepted and promoted to curtail cardiometabolic health risk while improving a constellation of fitness qualities, including muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, and cardiorespiratory fitness. Despite this, only 23.2% of U.S. adults aged 18 and over met the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans originally established in 2008 and revised in 2018 by the US Department of Health and Human Services which recommends the achievement of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and two non-consecutive days per week devoted to resistance training involving all major muscle groups.

Reductions in physical activity were noted among 70% of medical residents and significant disruptions in physical activity were reported among females. Younger adults who continued to exercise during COVID-19 lockdowns chronicled feeling more energetic than those who exercised irregularly or not at all and among 2,115 respondents across the lifespan (ages 16-65+) who achieved 150 minutes of physical activity per week were happier and more likely to maintain their overall wellbeing than those who performed less than 30 minutes of physical activity daily. Physical activity level was the greatest predictor of emotional wellbeing amid COVID-19, with greater wellbeing scores noted among persons achieving moderate to high weekly physical activity levels.

Members of a population who presumptively engaged in regular physical activity prior to COVID-19 also endured disruptions to their fitness routines. According to The Covid Era Fitness Consumer survey conducted by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, which comprised 1,171 respondents composed of U.S. adults aged 18 and over who maintain or recently cancelled a gym membership, revealed that 48% admitted to having a harder time finding motivation to exercise and 54% were dissatisfied with their new routine, with 56% indicating they believe their new routine to be worse. 10% of respondents revealed they stopped exercising altogether.

Though employment trends and arrangements have shifted in the past year, institutional or corporate wellness programs remain optimally positioned to promote the inclusion of physical activity to improve and uphold physical and mental health. Administrators and practitioners should formulate health messaging to include physical activity guidelines, elucidate benefits, and provide resources, actionable strategies, and creative solutions to help their populations achieve greater physical and mental health during these challenging times.

Want to get proactive and learn more for your clients and understand depression and other issues? Check out the Medical Fitness Specialist certification.

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