Why is staying active important during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Working from home is no excuse to stop exercising. New research led by Akira Ogami from the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Japan confirms that regular exercise is needed in maintaining good physical and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers who allocated time towards exercise or some form of physical activity reported a higher health-related quality of life than people who did not.

The researchers write:

“Encouraging workers with no exercise habit to exercise daily even for a short time may benefit their health and work productivity.”

The study “A cross-sectional study of the relationship between exercise, physical activity, and health-related quality of life among Japanese workers during the COVID-19 pandemic” is available as a preprint on the medRxiv* server.

Patient enrollment

The Collaborative Online Research on Novel-coronavirus and Work study (CORoNaWork study) collaborated with a Japanese Internet survey company to create and promote an online survey. The survey was available from December 22-25, 2020.

Questions ranged from participant personal information, any illnesses requiring medical treatment, time spent exercising, working hours, and their self-reported quality of life.

About 27,036 adults ranging from 20 and 65 years old who filled out the survey were eligible for the study.

Time spent in physical activity

About 11.8% of participants exercised in their free time for 1 hour or more, while 15.6% worked out for less than an hour. About 22.6% worked out for less than half an hour.

Almost half of the respondents (49.9%) never exercised.

About 25.3% of people were more likely to spend more than 120 minutes a day doing physical activity at work.

There were 11.3% of people at work performing physical activity for more than an hour but less than two hours. About 15.7% underwent physical activity for less than an hour at work compared to 17.6% that worked out for less than half an hour.

Thirty percent of workers reported not engaging in physical activity at work.

Exercise in moderation correlates with better health

Results show people who exercised for a short amount of time were more likely to view their health as poor. People who never exercised reported the most physically and mentally unhealthy days than people who exercised.

Working out for more than 2 hours a day was correlated with lower self-rated health than people who worked out for less than 2 hours and less than 1 hour. People who worked out for more than 2 hours also reported more mentally unhealthy days than the 1-hour group and the half-hour group. Additionally, working out for more than 2 hours correlated with more mentally unhealthy days.

“The results suggested that between 30 and 60 minutes of exercise daily was the most effective amount of exercise time for having a good health-related quality of life. Conversely, daily exercise, even for a short time, is thought to improve self-rated health and decrease mentally unhealthy days,” concluded the team.

Study limitations

While the benefits of exercise on physical and mental health have been studied extensively in the research community, the four limitations of the study need to be considered before generalizing it to the public.

The CORoNaWork study was an online survey, which raises the possibility that the survey may have been filled out by a certain geographic area or age group. The researchers took age, location, and occupation into account to reduce sampling bias when analyzing their results.

The online survey was also not an experiment with control over extraneous variables. Therefore, the results are correlational. Time spent exercising appears to be associated with a higher health-related quality of life.

The survey questions asked about how long a person spent exercising during their free time versus during work. But no question asked about the intensity of the workout — for instance, 15 minutes of lifting heavy packages differs significantly from walking for 30 minutes.

Lastly, the survey took place during Japan’s third pandemic wave. The COVID-19 pandemic may have affected people’s regular exercise habits, potentially skewing the results.

Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Written by

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira graduated with a Bachelor's in Integrative Neuroscience, where she then pursued graduate research looking at the long-term effects of adolescent binge drinking on the brain's neurochemistry in adulthood.

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