1. Reduced physical activity as a result of COVID-19 related restrictions may be associated with higher levels of stress and anxiety.
2. Relationships between perceived activity level, stress, and anxiety are confounded by genetic and environmental factors in addition to age and sex.
Evidence Rating Level: 2 (Good)
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, restrictions have been in place worldwide to limit the spread of the virus. Some of these restrictions also limit the opportunity for physical activity, such as the closure of athletic facilities and shelter-in-place orders. Since past research has associated lack of physical activity to poorer mental health, there is a growing need for empirical research regarding the restrictions’ effect on physical and mental health outcomes. The aim of this study was to investigate the association between perceived alterations in physical activity (due to the restrictions) and mental health. The study population was 3,971 adults taken from a twin registry in Washington State, including 909 same-sex twin pairs. Twins were used in this study to control for genetic and shared environmental factors, as changes in perceived physical activity were anticipated to be stemming from non-shared environmental factors. Participants completed an online survey which assessed perceived changes in physical activity (increased, decreased, or stayed the same), stress (using the 5-point Likert-type Perceived Stress Scale), and anxiety (using the Brief Symptom Inventory, also on a 5-point scale). The study found that there was no association between physical activity and mental health, in twins who reported an increase or no change in activity (stress: b = 0.089, SE = 0.060, p = 0.139; anxiety: b = 0.117, SE = 0.079, p = 0.141). For twins reporting a decrease or no change in activity, there was a significant association between activity and stress before controlling for the confounding variables (b = 0.036, SE = 0.010, p < 0.001). After controlling for genetics and shared environment though, the association was non-significant (b = 0.017, SE = 0.010, p = 0.090). For twins reporting decreased or no change in activity, the association with anxiety was significant before controlling (b = 0.143, SE = 0.039, p < 0.001), was still significant after controlling for genetics and shared environment (b = 0.134, SE = 0.042, p = 0.002), but was ultimately non-significant after controlling for age and sex, as older twins were more likely to report lower anxiety levels and females more likely to report higher anxiety levels (b = 0.150, SE = 0.106, p = 0.158). Overall, decreased perceived physical activity was linked to higher stress and anxiety, although the association with stress was confounded by genetics and shared environment, and anxiety with age and sex. This study demonstrates that the restrictions in place to protect public health could potentially be detrimental to physical and mental health, which has implications for potential interventions targeted at improving people’s well-being while restrictions are still in place.
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