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Stress and Anxiety Sabotaged Exercise Motivation During the Pandemic, Study Says

A stress-out woman plops down on her gray couch with her arms outstretched, looking up toward the ceiling.

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Key Takeaways

  • A survey of more than 1,600 people found that higher levels of depression and anxiety may have impacted people’s exercise motivation during the pandemic.
  • Lack of social support, limited space, and no access to workout equipment also made it difficult for many participants to exercise.
  • People can increase their exercise motivation by starting with low-impact activities and teaming up with a workout buddy.

Are you wondering why you haven’t been motivated to work out over the last year, even though you know it’s good for your physical and emotional wellbeing? The mental health impact of the pandemic might be to blame, according to new research.

In April, PLOS One published the findings of a survey-based study on more than 1,600 people. It found that those who experienced increased levels of depression and anxiety during the pandemic also tended to be the least active. People also said that anxiety, lack of social support, and limited access to workout equipment and space made it difficult to get motivated to exercise. 

The Study

A team of researchers from McMaster University and Western University in Ontario, Canada, surveyed 1,669 people to learn about how their physical activity, sedentary behavior, and mental health changed during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, as compared to before the pandemic. 

More than 80% of participants were women. Most lived in Canada, were between 18 and 45 years old, and had a bachelor’s degree or higher levels of education. Nearly half of participants knew someone who was at high risk of COVID-19 (such as a person with a compromised immune system, or a healthcare worker caring for COVID patients), which may have contributed to their stress and anxiety.

The 30-question survey was conducted online from April 23 to June 30, 2020. It asked participants to share information on their demographics, as well as their current and pre-pandemic physical activity and mental health symptoms. 

The results showed that overall, people experienced significantly more stress and moderate levels of anxiety and depression during the pandemic. They also exercised less than they did prior to lockdowns. On a weekly basis, aerobic activity fell by an average of 22 minutes and strength training dropped by 32 minutes, while participants also spent an additional 33 minutes sedentary.

Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD

Due to many adults working longer hours at home and struggling to strike a healthy balance between work life and home life, engaging in self-care activities such as exercise has felt like an unproductive use of time.

— Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD

Exercise may have seemed like a luxury, “especially if that time could easily be filled with essential tasks, like additional time to be productive at work and caring for their family’s needs,” explains Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Teladoc, which provides virtual healthcare.

Participants whose mental health became “worse” or “much worse” experienced the biggest declines in physical activity during COVID-19 compared with those who had improvements or no change in their emotional wellbeing.

“When you consider what is required for someone to engage in exercise—time, motivation, goal, and willingness to put up with some discomfort—it becomes a little clearer as to why a person dealing with stress and anxiety would be less likely to engage,” says P. Priyanka, MD, a psychiatrist and medical director at Community Psychiatry.

“Despite having time on their hands, this person is struggling with psychological discomfort due to negative thoughts which saps away motivation and energy to engage in activities, let alone exercise,” says Priyanka. 

Barriers to Exercise

There were many reasons why people exercised less during the initial lockdown. “Lack of motivation” was cited as a barrier to exercise for nearly half of participants during COVID-19, up from about 40% prior to the pandemic.

Another major factor was the closure of gyms and other fitness facilities. Around 45% of people said that lack of access to gyms kept them from working out during the pandemic, compared to just 5% before. Likewise, a lack of equipment became a barrier for about 30% of people—an increase of roughly 25 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels.

Beyond practical barriers, there were also emotional hurdles that impacted exercise motivation for people during the pandemic. More than 20% of people found that increased anxiety was an obstacle to physical activity, up from about 15% before the pandemic. Likewise, “lack of support” as an exercise barrier increased from about 7% of people before COVID-19 to nearly 15% amid lockdowns.

Further analysis showed that people who had an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression were more likely to cite those as barriers to exercise during the public health crisis.

P. Priyanka, MD

As much as we know about the positive side of physical activity and exercise, a person dealing with depression and anxiety struggles to engage in such activities because low energy and lack of motivation are fairly common symptoms.

— P. Priyanka, MD

“People tend to give up on things that are not absolutely necessary for living, and, unfortunately, exercise is [perceived as] one of those things. It soon becomes a vicious cycle because less activity further decreases your energy level which in turn makes you even less likely to be physically active,” Priyanka adds.

Understanding and Increasing Exercise Motivation

The pandemic not only affected the study participants’ exercise habits—it also changed some of their reasons for working out

Weight loss, strength building, appearance goals, and enjoyment became less important reasons for many people to be physically active during lockdown, compared to how they felt prior to the pandemic. Instead, people started to become more motivated by the benefits of physical activity on mental health. 

Anxiety relief was a motivation for nearly 60% of people during the pandemic—up from around 45% before. The proportion of people using physical activity for stress reduction climbed by about 5 percentage points. And slightly more people also looked to improved sleep as a motivating factor to work up a sweat.

These and other benefits of physical activity may be of increased importance during the pandemic, while many people are experiencing sleep issues and higher levels of stress and anxiety. 

The hard part for many may be figuring out ways to increase exercise motivation and turn physical activity into a regular habit. Start by taking baby steps, says Dudley.

Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD

For those struggling with engaging in physical activity because anxiety or depression levels are too high, or feel uncertain whether physical activity can actually help, consider seeking support from a mental health professional.

— Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD

“Change your thinking about exercise,” she says. “Instead of seeing it as a daunting task that you may not perform well, approach it as even a little movement is better than none.” She recommends focusing on low-impact exercises at first, especially if you’re concerned about physical strain after months of being sedentary.

“While aerobic exercises such as running and swimming are great for the brain and mood, yoga with a focus on breathing, meditation, and mindfulness is helpful in reducing anxiety and increasing confidence in the ability to engage in physical activity,” Dudley says.

Exercising with a friend—either virtually or safely in person—can also help you stick with your workout goals, Dudley adds. And while exercise can make a positive difference on your emotional wellbeing, you may need to tackle mental health symptoms in a more structured setting to increase your motivation and feel better overall.

“For those struggling with engaging in physical activity because anxiety or depression levels are too high, or feel uncertain whether physical activity can actually help, consider seeking support from a mental health professional,” says Dr. Dudley.

What This Means For You

If the emotional impact of the pandemic has made it difficult to stick with your workout plans, you’re not alone. This study found that people who experienced higher levels of depression and anxiety during the public health crisis also tended to be the least physically active.

Finding motivation to exercise may help improve both your physical and mental health, though. Experts recommend teaming up with a workout buddy and easing your way into physical activity through low-impact exercises, like yoga. It can also be helpful to address symptoms of depression and anxiety with the support of a mental health professional.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Marashi MY, Nicholson E, Ogrodnik M, Fenesi B, Heisz JJ. A mental health paradox: Mental health was both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. PLoS ONE. 2021;16(4):e0239244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0239244