University of São Paulo: Practice of physical exercise helped maintain good mental health in the pandemic

That the social isolation used to contain covid-19 was an aggravating factor for mental health problems, studies had already shown. But what scientists now say is that the lack of physical activity caused by confinement intensified fear, panic, anxiety and depression. A study with almost 5 thousand people, carried out simultaneously in Brazil, Chile and Spain, confirms this relationship between regular physical exercise and mental health.

The objective of the research, says Professor Átila Alexandre Trapé, from the School of Physical Education and Sport of Ribeirão Preto (EEFERP) at USP, was to verify the characteristics of the physical exercises practiced and the risk of mental health problems during social isolation. As a result, the researchers found an increased tendency for mental disorders the lower the levels of physical activity. The data are in the article Influence of physical activity on the psychological states of adults during the covid-19 pandemic , published in the journal Medicina (Ribeirão Preto).

To reach the 4,948 people affected in the three Ibero-American countries, “a snowball sampling technique” was used, in which a participant invites his friends and family to also respond to an online questionnaire. Between March and August 2020, 3,386 forms with sociodemographic, mental and general health data, in addition to physical exercise, were analyzed in Brazil alone.

A higher risk of depression, anxiety and stress was observed in Brazilian participants, women, young people and those who stayed at home more than 19 hours a day. The low level of physical activity was associated with a higher probability of depression when compared to the highest level (moderate and high).

In addition, another fact that drew attention, highlights the teacher, was the use of professionals for the practices. “People who were able to continue performing a physical activity in a way that was guided or supervised by a physical education professional had a protective effect and had a lower risk for depression, anxiety and stress.”

From research project to social extension
Research reinforces the need to practice physical activity even during the pandemic
In response to the findings, the team coordinated by Professor Trapé created a project to study the benefits of physical exercise in the recovery of post-covid patients. The health worker from Ribeirão Preto, Regina Martins Bernardes, was a volunteer, participating in the practical activities of the project, and says that she was a fan of walking, but that, with the isolation and, mainly, after having contracted the disease, she became very depressed and stopped exercising. This situation changed when she discovered USP’s program of activities. “It was very difficult at first”, says Regina, adding that, little by little, with each session of the exercises, she felt better and that she no longer intends to be without the practice.

The project, which started in September 2020 as a research project, has turned into a social outreach and now serves the entire community, not just post-covid patients.

Physical activity on the outskirts

Due to the benefits, the professor defends the creation of public policies to stimulate the population’s physical activity, thinking about health promotion in a broader context. Thus, encouraging people to take care of their own health and, later, in the interaction with the environment, contact with others, opening opportunities for access. And, here, the professor draws attention to the changes in the built environment that must also happen in the periphery, where there are greater difficulties in accessing and opportunities.

These are changes that need to take place in a context of equity, offering more to those who need it most so that they can access online activities in the context of the pandemic. Think about possibilities for everyone to practice physical activities, since a large portion of the population cannot choose to be active due to day-to-day activities. Public policies could, according to him, think of a solution for these people, so that they can “fit something related to physical activity into their routine, especially during leisure time”.

When talking about leisure, Trapé observes that physical activity should not be understood as overloading everyday tasks, but as leisure, doing what one likes. And also that these activities must be carried out with the possibilities available to them. The importance of physical exercise for well-being is not questioned, says the teacher, noting that it is also important to check how it fits into the routine, time, where the practitioner is.

Exercising for health maintenance: a habit

“Physical activity is not a choice”, emphasizes Trapé, indicating the habit of exercising to maintain health, either because of the organic effects of biological action, releasing endorphins (a hormone of pleasure and well-being), or because it brings “possibilities of interaction with the environment, with other people, which can be very good for those who are facing an issue related to mental health”, concludes the professor.


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