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Brief outside moderate to vigorous activity is best - take the children
In the midst of widespread working-from-home, COVID-related stress is on the rise. This is partly because of a general decrease in physical activity. For example, I'm currently in Stage 4 lock-down and we are only allowed out once per day for exercise, we need a permit to leave home for work, and cannot travel more than 5km from our home address.
We doing less exercise generally but we are also not getting any exercise associated with commuting, such as walking from the train station to the office.
This is bad news since there is a well-established association between lower levels of total physical activity and lower levels of positive mental health.
5000 people reported activity and mental health
A recent study, which was said to be a first, broke down the types of physical activity and their relationship to Positive Mental Health (PMH). This is helpful, because it found specific types of inactivity, and specific types of activity had different effects on PMH.
Knowing this, we can target specific activities which will offer the best mental health outcomes when our opportunity for physical activity is constrained, as it is now.
Firstly, a little background about the study. This was not one of those "25 college student" studies like you see on TV health shows. It was a population-based study in Finland, with 5090 participants completing the requirements - 55.6% women, mean age 55.5. years.
So this study was a "healthy" size. Participants rated their mental health using a well-accepted survey tool (the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale) and they were grouped in low, moderate and high categories of PMH.
The point of this investigation was to differentiate between types of physical activity and PMH. The three types of activity were:
These three types of leisure time were measured against PMH separately and also added together to form a total PA index for each individual. Combinations of the types of activity were analysed against the odds for having low PMH compared with moderate PMH and separately for having high PMH compared with moderate PMH.
Leisure-time inactivity the worst for mental health
The results are straightforward and interesting. They show us what exercise "intervention" works best to to get the most positive "mental health bang for our buck" during the pandemic.
The highlights are:
While we can appreciate that any exercise is better than none for our positive mental health, this study gives us a new insight.
Be more conscious of inactivity - add in movement
We can gain the most value in improving our positive mental health by avoiding long periods of leisure time inactivity, and by avoiding sitting for long-screen times.
We can activate this by:
Although we here are in total lockdown, only allowed out once per day, most of the world is not. So start walking. That's the best break that you can take.
The worst and best, for positive mental health
In fact, another study found that for adolescents, physical activity outdoors improved their positive mental health more than just being outdoors, but the amount of time outdoors did not.
What worked best was moderate to vigorous physical activity. This means that getting outside with your children for a bike run or jog or kicking a soccer ball for a short time had as good an effect as being outside for much longer. In these days of home-schooling that's great to know.
I don’t know about you, but I'm finding my 10-year-old daughter less and less motivated to get outside during the day. It's concerning. But it is reassuring to know that a 15-minute bike ride will do her as much good as a one hour walk - mentally.
Better brain health - run about faster
We don't know what the mechanism is which connects physical activity and brain health. Interestingly, a series of studies have shown the effects of physical exercise on gut microbiota dynamics, suggesting that gut microbiota regulation might act as one mediator for the effects of exercise on the brain. (researchgate.net)
There's always controversy between parents and children and parent and parents, about whether too much screen time is "bad for the brain". I'm on the side that says it doesn’t matter and that playing Minecraft is better than watching TV. My wife doesn't agree.
Because we are on the topic of physical inactivity and long screen time I'll refer to this study (of 2532 children) in which no association was observed between screen time and "white matter microstructure".
On the other hand, higher levels of physical activity were associated with greater white matter microstructure in children. Outdoor play and sport participation were specifically related to white matter microstructure.
Unfortunately, this study did not report on any "dose-related" associations - how much activity and how intense. So we cannot translate it's findings into specific WFH or COVID physical activity strategies - except to make time outside with the kids.
What it does say, is that even if can’t avoid our children locking on to the screen for too long it does appear to negatively affect their brain white matter. So don’t stress about that. Concentrate on getting them outside, and moving moderately to vigorously. That's going to help them be more settled, and you.
Outdoors - whenever you can - and run about, even if briefly
The study highlights the importance of avoiding slouch time and long screen time as these are strongly associated with lower levels of positive mental health.
Of the readily available activities, especially during COVID restrictions, any outdoor activity is beneficial for mental health - walking, jogging, running, walking backwards!
For adolescents moderate to vigorous activities have the best results - see "Fun Training Challenges To Do With Your Kids In The Park, Here's Six You Can Do Today"
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