Changes in physical activity levels and mental health during COVID-19: Prospective findings among adult twin pairs

Duncan GE, Avery AR, Tsang S, Williams BD, Seto E.

Background: Physical distancing and other COVID-19 pandemic mitigation strategies have negatively impacted physical activity (PA) levels and mental health in cross-sectional studies. The purpose of this study was to investigate associations between changes in PA and mental health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic, following implementation of mitigation strategies, in a sample of adult twins.

Methods: This was a prospective study of 3,057 adult twins from the Washington State Twin Registry. Study participants completed online surveys in 2020, at baseline (March 26 -April 5), and three follow-up waves (W1: April 20 -May 3; W2: Jul 16 -Aug 2; W3: Sept 16 -Oct 1). Physical activity was operationalized as self-reported moderate-to-vigorous PA (MVPA) and neighborhood walking (minutes/week), and mental health outcomes, operationalized as self-reported anxiety and perceived stress were assessed in the three waves of follow-up. Latent growth curve models (LGCMs) were used to assess changes in PA and mental health outcomes over time. Parallel LGCMs were used to estimate the cross-sectional, parallel, and prospective associations between PA and mental health over time. All models took into within-pair correlations and adjusted for age, sex, and race.

Results: Individuals’ amount of MVPA and walking decreased over time, whereas levels of anxiety remained stable, and stress increased slightly. Cross-sectional associations observed between both PA predictors and mental health outcomes were weak. After taking into account cross-sectional associations between PA and mental health outcomes, changes in PA over time were not associated with changes in mental health outcomes over time.

Conclusions: Over a time period aligned with COVID-19 mitigation strategies and social restrictions, changes in physical activity was not associated with changes in anxiety or stress levels in the current sample. Nonetheless, the average decline in PA over time is worrisome. Public health resources should continue to promote PA as a means to improve physical health during the pandemic.

Duncan GE, Avery AR, Tsang S, Williams BD, Seto E. Changes in physical activity levels and mental health during COVID-19: Prospective findings among adult twin pairs. PLoS One. 2021 Nov 22;16(11):e0260218. PMC8608318.