OK, so you let the exercise routine slide a bit during the pandemic.
(Join the crowd.)
And now that restrictions are loosening, you’re going to get back to it, right?
(We’ll see about that.)
Whether you do it, and why you do it, are the kinds of things that intrigue such researchers as Brandon Alderman.
Alderman is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. He focuses on the science and psychology of exercise and how it affects our mental health.
He recently spoke to us about how we have fared with exercise over the last 15 months and what it all means.
When the pandemic started, what did you expect of people’s exercise behaviors, and what actually happened?
I expected that, in general, we were going to see an overall decline of physical activity among everyone. This was because of the tight restrictions. I was being interviewed at the time by some news outlets, and they were asking how people could incorporate physical activity in small apartments in New York City, when people were restricted because they didn’t have the gym anymore. I lamented that a lot of people don’t think about the most freely available type of activity open to us: just walking outside.
What happened was a little bit different. According to the data and the recent findings, there was, on average, a decrease in physical activity among everyone initially. But the actual picture was more subtle. Those people who were more active pre-pandemic became more sedentary during the pandemic period. People who were already sedentary ― insufficiently physically active ― didn’t become more sedentary. They simply maintained their lack of physical activity.
Depressive feelings and feelings of stress and isolation all increased during that time. It could be because people were stressed about the pandemic. But there’s also an interesting association with physical activity. The current available research shows that if you have a decrease in physical activity, you might see a change in your overall mental health. You might feel more stress, for instance. And, unfortunately, those feelings as a result of the pandemic likely influenced many people’s physical activity. Those very feelings undermine our motivation to get outside and exercise.
Most people don’t consider exercise and physical activity as a treatment for how they’re feeling at the time. But it can be.
What do you still hope to find out?
What we’ve not yet learned is how people’s preferences for different types of physical activity and exercise may have influenced what happened to their own physical activity and exercise behavior, and then what mental health symptoms accompanied those behaviors.
If you’re a swimmer, and the pandemic restrictions meant that you couldn’t swim, you might have become less physically active overall, and you might have had feelings of depression and anxiety.
So the overall population averages tell only one part of the story. Different people — individuals — may have become more or less active during that period of time. What we don’t know is how these individual preferences played out.
Here’s my own example: I guess you could refer to me as a typical middle-aged adult who knows that exercise is good for him. It features prominently in my life — I study it and am often writing about the benefits of exercise. Yet, unfortunately, life still often gets in the way of my own exercise routine.
One of my preferred types of exercise is walking outdoors. The pandemic freed up many of the typical constraints on my time — commuting time, for one — and I developed a new routine. It allowed me to become more physically active.
That’s often what is critical about exercise — incorporating it into people’s lives. Like many health behaviors, you have to make it part of your habitual routine. I’m a little concerned, as we move back into a normal phase, about how my new routine will be affected.
You spoke of exercise as a way to improve our mental health.
Various guidelines might lead us to think you need to do something like a continuous exercise program for 8 to 12 weeks to experience benefits in mental health. But we now know that even short bouts of walking — 10 to 15 minutes of a leisurely walk — can be used for symptom management. You might not shift from having clinical anxiety to not having clinical anxiety, but you can still use those short bouts of exercise to manage the symptoms.
The data show that people — including those without diagnosed anxiety — have these little blips of benefit following those sessions of exercise. For some people, that might even alter their trajectory, so they might become less anxious. But even if not, those little changes can be important for many of us.
I should clarify that I’m not talking about the so-called runner’s high. Euphoria might not be what most people feel following exercise. But exercise does make most people feel better in the period of time following exercise. How long a time is a very important scientific question we’re trying to answer. We do know it lasts at least a few hours, and maybe up to 24 hours.
Now that people are getting vaccinated, what are you seeing as far as new exercise behaviors?
Now that people are getting vaccinated, the individuals who were previously active are becoming more active. They are resuming their typical exercise and activity behavior. People who weren’t active are staying inactive.
Here’s another nuance. Early in the pandemic, there was an increase in the amount of time people were sitting. There is evidence that this is changing. In general, everyone is spending less time sitting.
It may simply be that they are getting out more. Rather than viewing the home as a place where they can still get up and get some sort of exercise — even just by standing or walking during a phone conversation — many people think of it as a place where they just sit.
What does all this mean going forward? Was there anything good that came out of the pandemic?
From the perspective of exercise and physical activity, I think we learned a lot about health behaviors, in general. One of the things we are still studying is what’s called mechanisms of behavior change. Why do humans do the things they do, and why are some of those behaviors good for us, and some are harmful to our health?
One of the things the pandemic has allowed us to do is think about health behaviors that are often difficult to study, and certainly difficult to change. So when you force people to change behaviors — like quarantine and wear masks — it allowed us researchers to think more carefully about people’s volitional behaviors, or nonvolitional behaviors. The health behaviors people choose to do, and those they are not that interested in.
As for individuals, I’m optimistic by nature, so I hope it allowed many of us to think carefully about important health behaviors. I hope it was a reset for many people. It was definitely a reset for me. I think I have begun to alter my priorities about my own physical exercise.
All this helps me to understand — and I study this — and think more carefully about the very real barriers that exist for people who are trying to incorporate exercise into their lives.