Depression Increased as Physical Activity Decreased During COVID-19 Pandemic


Sleep has increased since the beginning of the pandemic in college students, while social activity has decreased.

Osea Giuntella, PhD

Osea Giuntella, PhD

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted exercise in a number of ways.

Gyms closed, sports were cancelled, and stress rose. In absence of routine, many began to get creative in their exercise programs, working out at home.

However, new research shows a decrease in exercise could be leading to a significant increase in depression rates and other mental health disorder.

A team, led by Osea Giuntella, PhD, Department of Economics, University of Pittsburgh, quantified the changes in physical activity, sleep, time use and mental health among a dataset of college students before and during the ongoing pandemic.

The Study

Overall, there were 3 cohorts of students from the University of Pittsburgh enrolled in the study—spring 2019, fall 2019, and spring 2020.

The researchers sought a primary measure of mental health of depression, which was assessed using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D).

Each individual filled out a baseline survey, received a wearable tracker, and installed a custom-made smartphone application on their phone to track the data.

The researchers used a longitudinal dataset linking biometric and survey data from multiple cohorts of young adults before and during the pandemic. Overall, there were 682 individuals included in the study.


At the beginning of the pandemic, the average steps per day for the sample population declined from an average of 10,000 per day to 4600 steps per day. Sleep also increased between 25-30 minutes per night, while the time spent socializing declined by over half to less than 30 minutes per day.

Finally, screen time, unsurprisingly, doubled to over 5 hours a day.

These figures coincided with a 90% increase in depression risk between March and July 2020 in the same patient population just prior to the pandemic. Overall, the proportion of participants at risk for clinical depression ranged from 46-61%.

The researchers used difference-in-difference and individual fixed-effects regressions to show that changes in physical activity, sleep, social interactions, screen time, and depression are all statistically significant when compared to the changes in previous cohorts (P <0.001).

The largest decline between pre-pandemic and during the pandemic occurred in physical activity, which has been previously linked to worsened overall health outcomes.

“Our analyses suggest that disruption to physical activity is a leading risk factor for depression during the pandemic,” the authors wrote. “However, restoration of those habits through a short-term intervention does not meaningfully improve mental well-being.”

According to the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), approximately 33% of adults in the US were suffering from anxiety of depression as of June 2020. This is nearly 2 times higher for young adults, which is a subgroup that was already seeing rising rates of mental illnesses.

More than 60% of individuals between 18-24 years old are at a risk of depression or anxiety, 25% of which reported considering suicide in the previous month.

The study, “Lifestyle and mental health disruptions during COVID-19,” was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

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