Carnegie Mellon University
February 12, 2021

COVID-related Depression Linked to Reduced Physical Activity

A multi-institutional team of researchers followed university students to identify factors linked to depression and anxiety

By Stacy Kish

Stacy Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-9309
The United States spends more than $200 billion every year to treat and manage mental health. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic not only has deepened the chasm for those experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety; the chasm has also widened, affecting more people.

New research from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California San Diego found that 61% of surveyed university students were at risk of clinical depression, twice the rate prior to the pandemic. This rise in depression came alongside dramatic shifts in lifestyle habits.

The study documents dramatic changes in physical activity, sleep and time use at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disruptions to physical activity emerged as a leading risk factor for depression. Importantly, those who maintained their exercise habits were at significantly lower risk than those who experienced the large declines in physical activity. While physical activity resumed in early summer, mental well-being did not automatically rebound. The results of the study, titled, "Lifestyle and Mental Health Disruptions During Covid-19," are available online in the Feb. 10 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"There is an alarming rise in the rate of anxiety and depression among young adults, especially among college students," said Silvia Saccardo, assistant professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at CMU and senior author on the paper. "The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis in this vulnerable population."

Saccardo and her colleagues, Osea Giuntella, Kelly Hyde and Sally Sadoff, examined data gathered from 682 college students who used a smartphone app and a wearable tracker for spring 2019, fall 2019 and spring 2020. Their results show large disruptions in physical activity, sleep, computer/phone screen time and social interaction, alongside large declines in well-being. This dataset spans the onset of social isolation during the early months of the pandemic.

"We used this unique dataset to study what factors are predictive of changes in depression," said Saccardo. "[In the dataset,] we can see that mental health gets worse as the semester progresses, but it is dramatically worse in 2020 compared to the previous cohort."

The team found that participants who practiced healthy habits prior to the pandemic — scheduled physical activity and maintained an active social life — were at a higher risk for depression as the pandemic continued. After a decline, restoration of physical activity was not met with a rebound in mental well-being.

"We randomized a group of individuals to receive incentives to exercise. 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," said Saccardo. "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."

This research documents COVID-19's effect on the mental health of college students.

"The results are generalizable to the young adult population, a highly exposed group which has exhibited rising depression rates over the last decades and was dramatically exposed to the disruptions caused by the current epidemic," said Giuntella, assistant professor of economics at Pitt. "We need more work to understand whether similar trends were observed in other age groups."

This project received funds from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.