COVID-related depression, anxiety linked to lifestyle

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New research from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of California, San Diego found that 61 percent of surveyed students were at risk of clinical depression, a value twice the rate prior to the pandemic. This rise in depression came alongside shifts in lifestyle habits, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study documents changes in physical activity, sleep, and screen time use at the onset of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Disruptions to physical activity emerged as a leading risk factor for depression during the pandemic. Importantly, those who maintained their exercise habits were at significantly lower risk than those who experienced the large declines in physical activity brought on by the pandemic. While physical activity resumed in early summer, mental wellbeing did not automatically rebound, the study said.

For the study, researchers examined data gathered from 682 college students who used a smartphone app and a wearable fitness tracker for spring 2019, fall 2019, and spring 2020. Their results show disruptions in physical activity, sleep, and compute or phone screen time and social interaction, alongside large declines in wellbeing. This data set spans the onset of social isolation during the early months of the pandemic, offering an insight into the factors that exacerbated mental health disorders in this age group, the researchers said.

The team found that participants who maintained healthy habits prior to the pandemic, including scheduled physical active and an active social life, were at a higher risk for depression as the pandemic continued. The researchers point to a decline in physical activity as the leading risk factor for diminished mental health. However, restoration of physical activity was not met with a rebound in mental wellbeing, they said.

"We randomized a group of individuals to receive incentive to exercise,” said Silvia Saccardo, PhD, senior author of the paper and an assistant professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. “While our short intervention increased physical activity among this group, it did not have an impact on mental health. These results open up a lot of opportunities for future research. It is an interesting puzzle for future studies to understand why we do not see a symmetric relationship between the resumption of physical activity and mental health.”

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