The results of a Norwegian study indicate that people who exercise consistently are healthier mentally. That’s good news for everyone who’s keeping up their training despite the closure of fitness centres during the corona pandemic.
The results of a Norwegian study indicate that people who exercise consistently are healthier mentally. That’s good news for everyone who’s keeping up their training despite the closure of fitness centres during the corona pandemic.

Researchers found higher level of anxiety and depression in people who exercised less during COVID-19 lockdown

Around 14 per cent of study respondents reported that they exercised less following the Norwegian lockdown, while 64 per cent remained unchanged and 22 per cent increased their amount of exercise.

Published

Researchers from NTNU and the organization Kondis have collaborated to investigate the relationship between physical activity and mental health.

Kondis is an organization for people with an interest in cardio sports such as running, cycling, cross country skiing and triathlon.

The project is not yet complete, but the researchers have initial results – and they say it looks promising for people who are keeping their heart rate up.

Shutdown activity

Midway through the study, society closed down due to the corona pandemic, and the 1317 participants responded to how this affected their exercise habits.

They were asked, among other things, whether they kept up their usual activity once the social infrastructure and fitness centres were closed. Since the study from NTNU and Kondis is not yet published, the results remain preliminary.

“Around 14 per cent of the participants responded that they exercised less after the shutdown, while 64 per cent remained unchanged and 22 per cent increased their amount of exercise. We compared the responses from these groups in terms of the degree of anxiety and depression symptoms they had, and the degree of resilience, says NTNU psychologist and associate professor Audun Havnen who heads the project.

Resilience is about how resistant you are to mental stress, and whether you are able to maintain good mental health during periods of psychological stress.

More exercise, less depression

“We observed that people who said they trained less during the corona lockdown had a higher level of anxiety and depression,” Havnen says.

“We also saw that individuals who considered themselves more resilient were less plagued by anxiety and depression.

Havnen points out that the project is not complete and that the researchers do not yet have enough data to arrive at any definitive conclusions from the current investigation.

“We can only say that there seems to be a connection, but we’re going to do two follow-up studies, and then we hope to be able to give clear and unambiguous answers,” he says.

In 2018, videnskap.dk wrote about the effects of strength training on depression (in Norwegian).

“Gradually we’re seeing enough evidence to say that strength training counteracts depression,” says Pernille Højman, a senior researcher at the Center for Inflammation and Metabolism at the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen.

But a lot indicates that similar benefits may be achieved in more ways than just through strength training.

Well-trained group

Kondis members, who were participants in the new study, probably started out with a higher than average activity level. The project leader said that a significant proportion of the participants reported that they exercise every day, some exercise three times a week – and only a few less often than that.

Havnen confirms that this is a relatively well-trained group.

That was also the purpose of the study, he says. The researchers weren’t interested in studying top athletes, but rather active Norwegians whom they can later compare to average Norwegians.

In the follow-up study, the researchers will find out whether the results are transferable to people who are somewhat less avid gym-goers.

“By following the participants for a whole year, we’ll have the opportunity to see if there’s any connection between how much people exercise and their mental health a year later,” he says.

The results of the first studies on resilience and protective factors for mental health will be submitted for evaluation in scientific journals this summer.

What about inactive people?

If you are a very inactive person – can you realistically see any effect within a reasonable time if you start exercising? And how much do you have to train to benefit your mental health?

“Getting an inactive person to start exercising regularly can be extra difficult. But the nice thing about the results of our research is that they show that by making even small changes you can achieve a good change in your mental health,” Magnus Lindwall told forskning.no in 2013 (in Norwegian).

He is a professor of psychology at the University of Gothenburg, and had at that time just published a study showing that even a little exercise also has a positive effect on mental health.

Not a brand new idea

It may not come as a big surprise that the study from NTNU and Kondis seems to show a connection between physical activity and mental health. The forskning.no and sciencenorway.no archives contain a number of articles where researchers have substantiated the same claim.

But is shifting your mental health in a positive direction just a matter of getting your heart rate up?

“Training also has a social aspect. Exercise often takes place in a gym where people talk with each other. I think that can help people with depression,” said Mats Hallgren, associate professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Structure for daily life

Due to the corona situation, the social aspect of the training has probably dropped off for a lot of people. That could suggest that the activity itself is significant. Another aspect is bringing variation into our everyday lives and avoiding dead time where heavy thoughts weigh us down.

Hallgren mentioned this in the article about the positive effect of strength training on depression. “Exercise provides a little structure in daily life and can distract us from our everyday worries to have more neutral or positive thoughts.”

Thus, several aspects of exercise can benefit mental health. Exactly how they all connect could become clearer once NTNU and Kondis have completed their follow-up studies.

Translated by: Ingrid P. Nuse

References:

Article at kondis.no (2020) (in Norwegian).

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Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no.