In the middle of the pandemic this spring, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) conducted a survey among members of a Norwegian fitness training organization called Kondis.
Since this survey was sent out in the middle of the lockdown in Norway, participants were asked whether they had changed their exercise habits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The aim of these initial analyses was to map mental health and sleep problems and to investigate whether changes in exercise habits had consequences for sleep.
“Not surprisingly, we found that the incidence of anxiety and depression was significantly lower in this relatively fit sample than among other people. And this was the case despite the fact that we conducted the survey in the middle of the toughest part of the COVID time,” says associate professor Linda Ernstsen, RN, PhD, from NTNU’s Department of Public Health and Nursing, in a release.
These findings come as little surprise to the researchers. The connection between physical and mental health has been known for a long time, not least through the 240,000 people who have participated in a series of health studies starting in 1984 called the HUNT Surveys.
But the new study, published in Sleep Medicine, still offers some surprises, especially related to the fact that a lot of people changed their exercise habits this spring.
Ernstsen carried out the study together with project manager and associate professor Audun Havnen, PhD, from NTNU’s department of psychology.
“It was surprising that so many people increased their amount of exercise during the coronavirus pandemic. Since people were encouraged to avoid public spaces and stay home, the fact that so many used the extra time they had to move more was a positive effect,” says Havnen.
This survey is the first of three to be conducted among Kondis members. The overall goal of the questionnaires is to study the relationship between different aspects of physical activity, mental health, and quality of life in a sample assumed to be fit, and how this changes over time.
Although active people generally experience less depression and anxiety than others, some of them still do get depressed and anxious.
When COVID-19 struck this spring, many Kondis members modified their training habits, regardless of whether they were struggling with mental health problems. You would think that this change would affect their quality of sleep as well. But that didn’t happen.
“We thought the connection between mental health and sleep problems would be more pronounced in people who changed how much they exercised. But we found no differences,” says Ernstsen.
The two groups were thus affected in exactly the same way, regardless of changes in their exercise habits.
This doesn’t mean that there is no connection between mental health and sleep, even in this active group.
“We found a connection between anxiety symptoms and sleep problems and a connection between depressive symptoms and sleep problems,” Ernstsen says.
People with depression and anxiety consistently sleep less well than others. This is true for the most physically fit among us as well.
“Since all the participants answered the questions at the same time this spring, so far we only know that there’s a connection between physical activity, mental health, and sleep. To investigate what leads to what, we’ve invited the participants to take the survey again after six and twelve months to study changes over time,” says Havnen.