A mental health paradox: Mental health was both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic Journal Articles uri icon

  • Overview
  • Research
  • Identity
  • Additional Document Info
  • View All


  • The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the mental health, physical activity, and sedentary behavior of people worldwide. According to the Health Belief Model (HBM), health-related behavior is determined by perceived barriers and motivators. Using an online survey with 1669 respondents, we sought to understand why and how physical activity and sedentary behavior has changed by querying about perceived barriers and motivators to physical activity that changed because of the pandemic, and how those changes impacted mental health. The following results were statistically significant at p < .05. Consistent with prior reports, our respondents were less physically active (aerobic activity, -11%; strength-based activity, -30%) and more sedentary (+11%) during the pandemic as compared to 6-months before. The pandemic also increased psychological stress (+22%) and brought on moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Respondents’ whose mental health deteriorated the most were also the ones who were least active (depression r = -.21, anxiety r = -.12). The majority of respondents were unmotivated to exercise because they were too anxious (+8%,), lacked social support (+6%), or had limited access to equipment (+23%) or space (+41%). The respondents who were able to stay active reported feeling less motivated by physical health outcomes such as weight loss (-7%) or strength (-14%) and instead more motivated by mental health outcomes such as anxiety relief (+14%). Coupled with previous work demonstrating a direct relationship between mental health and physical activity, these results highlight the potential protective effect of physical activity on mental health and point to the need for psychological support to overcome perceived barriers so that people can continue to be physically active during stressful times like the pandemic.


  • Marashi, Maryam Yvonne
  • Nicholson, Emma
  • Ogrodnik, Michelle
  • Fenesi, Barbara
  • Heisz, Jennifer

publication date

  • 2021