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Managing Your Mental Health with Exercise During the Covid-19 Pandemic

2020 — the year that has gone where no one ever could have imagined. Life as we knew it (and planned it) changed quickly as a result of COVID-19 (the novel Corona virus.) We are beings who thrive on consistency and we are currently living each day with a sense of uncertainty and unease. We may feel inundated with local and national news stations broadcasting the newest number of cases, next steps to take, and the most frightening figure of all: the current death toll. There is fear for our safety and the safety of our loved ones. Each day we learn how to navigate the ever-changing environment of rules and restrictions that keep us safe.

Additionally, we have been social distancing, self-isolating, or quarantining for nearly two months and if you are anything like me, there are days where I am starting to feel like my living room walls are closing in on me. We miss our family, our friends, restaurants, sporting events, and special gatherings as each day passes. John Hopkins University found that isolation and social distancing, along with the continued barrage of difficult news, can increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.1 Even if you’ve never experienced feelings like this before—or been officially diagnosed with these conditions, the feelings associated with these vast changes and general uncertainty breed perfect conditions for changes in your mental health. You may have noticed changes in your sleeping and eating patterns, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, increased use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs, increased irritability or anger, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, sadness, anger, or depression.2,3 These are all symptoms of changes in our mental health as a result of the ongoing pandemic and they are also TOTALLY normal feelings to be experiencing in these circumstances. Know that you are not alone in experiencing these feelings. It’s ok to talk about what you are feeling, as others are likely feeling the same way as well.

Recommendations for managing your stress, anxiety or depression during this time can include getting regular meals with nutritious food, improving sleeping habits, limiting time spent reading/listening to the news, and…EXERCISE.4 Studies have shown exercise to be a very effective tool in managing and reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Exercise increases blood circulation to the brain, acting specifically on areas that control motivation and mood, fear response to stress, and memory formation. Studies have also found exercise as an effective tool to alleviate symptoms of social withdrawal.5 And, the best news is that the results are achieved through only 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 3-5 days a week. Moderate meaning—you breathe a little bit heavier than normal but are not out of breath and you feel increased warmth in your body as you move but are not overheated or sweaty.6

Exercise programs can look different for each individual person from type of activity to intensity of activity. Try these tips if you are looking for ideas to get started or need additional motivation to keep going.

  • Baby Steps: Research shows that your 30 minutes of exercise does not have to occur all at once to have a benefit.5 If 30 minutes of aerobic activity is a challenge, break it up into 5-10 minutes increments throughout the day. You may not be able to achieve 30 minutes initially, but as you remain consistent in your program, you will find increased ease in duration of your exercise. It is also a great way to break up the number of hours we find ourselves sitting while working from home. Get up and move on your lunch break or take a short movement break during the morning or afternoon. Not only will this help you manage your stress and anxiety, but it will also help improve posture and body position as you continue your workday.
  • Have Fun: Choose an activity that you look forward to versus something you always dread. If you don’t enjoy jogging for example, try walking, yoga, biking, dancing, or gardening instead. If it is nice out, get outdoors to get some fresh air and sunshine. If you are short on time or can’t get outdoors, look online for a class you could take. Don’t be afraid to try something new! There are a lot of online fitness platforms offering free classes or memberships right now—give it a shot. Just make sure to listen to your body and perform the activity within your personal limits.
  • Set a Goal: Help to hold yourself accountable by setting a goal for yourself. Maybe you want to be active a certain number of days per week or maybe you want to reach a certain number of miles. My extended family is currently taking part in a walking challenge which requires us to record our miles each week. Our goal is 2652 total miles, the number of miles it would take to get all of us in one place for a theoretical party! It has been giving us extra motivation to get out and walk each day, not to mention the added bonus of staying connected with family!
  • Make it Social (within social distancing guidelines): Find someone around your house to be your exercise buddy — spouses, kids, or pets will all get the same benefit from daily exercise. Modeling healthy behaviors for your kids is a great way to help them choose healthy behaviors; now is a great time to establish a daily exercise routine. Additionally, our kids are also exposed to high levels of stress and anxiety during this time, so it is a great way to help them manage their feelings and stress too. Also, daily exercise provides a great opportunity to chat with your family members about how they are coping each day. If you can’t convince someone around your house to join you, arrange a phone call with your parent/child or your best friend to keep you company as you walk or run. Just make sure to maintain awareness of your surroundings to increase personal safety.
  • Be Comfortable: Choose an activity that feels comfortable to perform and listen to your body. Exercise should not be painful except for maybe a little bit of muscle soreness (the good kind!) Make modifications to time or intensity to help an activity feel good for your body. Still managing an old injury? Pull out your home exercise program as prescribed by your therapist and add that into your routine to improve healing and help your mental health. Do you need any modifications? Reach out to your MTI Physical Therapist and get their recommendations for modifying exercises for the home setting. You could also schedule a clinic visit or eVisit to get additional updates. Our clinics are open and we are here to support you as you expand your fitness and get your body moving.

These really are unprecedented times we are managing and coping with right now. Remember, we are all in this together and it will get better. It is okay to have days that feel tough, stressful, and anxiety producing, but knowing how to manage and process those feelings are imperative to healthy coping. Using exercise and fitness is a great way to help manage the stress, anxiety, and grieving we are dealing with daily for everyone from babies to adults. Use this time to develop a self-care routine you can keep even as life returns to normal. Get out and get moving — to support and take care of your body as well as your mental health.

If you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed by sadness, depression, or anxiety or having feelings of wanting to harm yourself or others, please seek help immediately by calling 911 or visiting the following resources:

Sources:

  1. Report Hstaff. Managing and understanding mental health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hub. https://hub.jhu.edu/2020/04/06/dani-fallin-mental-health-challenges-coronavirus/. Published April 6, 2020. Accessed April 30, 2020.
  2. Holingue C, Fallin DM, Kalb L, Nestadt P, Stuart E. Protecting your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. https://www.jhsph.edu/covid-19/articles/protecting-your-mental-health-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic.html. Published April 22, 2020. Accessed April 30, 2020.
  3. Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html. Published April 16, 2020. Accessed April 30, 2020.
  4. Supporting Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-news/2020/supporting-mental-health-during-the-covid-19-pandemic.shtml. Published April 3, 2020. Accessed April 30, 2020.
  5. Sharma A, Madaan V, Petty FD. Exercise for Mental Health. The Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2006;08(02):106. doi:10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a.
  6. Robinson L, Segal J, Smith M. The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm/. Published April 24, 2020. Accessed April 30, 2020.

Maren Kludt, PT, DPT is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists and treats patients at MTI Physical Therapy’s Kirkland clinic. She also coaches volleyball at Woodinville High School and runs the offseason strength and conditioning program for the team. Maren is an avid athlete and enjoys running, walking, yoga, cycling, and playing volleyball. She has a passion for educating patients on how to properly rehabilitate and train their bodies to achieve their fitness goals. In her spare time, you will find Maren spending time with her family at the dog park or exploring the Washington and Oregon coasts! You can reach her directly at marenkludt@mtipt.com.