According to two studies conducted in Serbia during the COVID-19 lockdown, elite athletes and individuals who engaged in vigorous levels of exercise demonstrated the lowest psychological distress during this time. The findings, published in Frontiers in Psychology, further underscored the importance of adaptability, showing that athletes who reduced their training schedules during the early stages of lockdown showed lower distress than those who maintained them.
While the mental health benefits of exercise are widely known, the specifics remain unclear. There is some debate over the ideal intensity of physical activity to achieve these benefits, and few studies have compared the psychological health of elite athletes to that of recreational athletes.
Study authors Jelena Sokić and team took the opportunity to explore the mental health effects of exercise within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically during the early stages of the lockdown when psychological distress was particularly high. The researchers opted to differentiate between different levels of activity, while also taking into consideration how people had adapted their training schedules during the lockdown.
A first study was conducted during the initial stages of lockdown in Serbia, between March and May of 2021. A total of 678 adults were recruited for the study — 434 identified as recreational athletes, 105 as elite athletes, and 139 as non-athletes. The participants completed questionnaires that included measures of depression, anxiety, and stress and reported on their levels of physical activity before the lockdown. The respondents were additionally asked how their training routines had changed during the lockdown.
The findings revealed that elite athletes demonstrated the lowest scores for depression, anxiety, and stress. Recreational athletes fared the next best, and non-athletes showed the highest levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. When looking at participants’ levels of physical activity prior to lockdown, vigorously active participants had lower stress scores compared to moderately active or nonactive participants.
Interestingly, it appeared that taking the initiative to adapt one’s training routine was important. Among recreational athletes, sticking to the same training schedule during the lockdown was associated with greater anxiety compared to reducing one’s training. Elite athletes appeared to fare best when adapting their training, showing less anxiety when reducing their training compared to recreational athletes who also scaled down their training.
The study authors suggest that competitive athletes may have been better able to adapt to the new circumstances of lockdown, perhaps owing to their history of responding to the pressures that come with elite sports.
Next, a second study was conducted toward the end of the lockdown among a new sample of 398 Serbian residents. This time, the questionnaires asked participants to rate their current mental health and their mental health before lockdown. Overall, participants who identified as non-athletes scored lowest in positive affect and highest in negative affect. Elite and recreational athletes did not differ significantly in their affect scores.
The findings further revealed that subjective well-being dropped across the entire sample. Importantly, the well-being scores of elite and recreational athletes did not drop any less than those of non-athletes, suggesting that engaging in exercise did not provide any further psychological benefits during the lockdown. Instead, the superior mental health of the athletes was a reflection of the psychological benefits of exercise that exist in regular times.
Again, appropriately adapting one’s training routine seemed important. This time, athletes who stuck to their exercise schedules during the lockdown fared better in terms of well-being than those who stopped training. The authors suggest that, after some adjustment to the lockdown, regaining one’s exercise routine was helpful for mental health, noting that, “although in terms of mental health, the adequate first response to a crisis might require some adjustments in the daily routine (training-wise), keeping and adapting previous routines to new circumstances leads to long-term mental health benefits.”
The study, “Effects of Physical Activity and Training Routine on Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Lockdown”, was authored by Jelena Sokić, Stanislava Popov, Bojana M. Dinić, and Jovana Rastović.