Participants in the online physical activity intervention saw improvements in their levels of depression, anxiety and stress, according to findings published in the journal. Mental health and physical activity. Interestingly, these mental health benefits appear to have occurred without marked improvements in physical activity.
Despite overwhelming evidence that physical exercise can improve mental health, many adults do not meet current recommendations for physical activity – the World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. Evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced exercise levels among the public.
To encourage people to increase their movement, technology-based physical activity interventions have been developed. These interventions help support people in increasing their activity levels using online methods such as smartphone apps, activity trackers and social networks. Although these interventions are promising, it is not clear whether they provide benefits for mental health.
“Web-based interventions have the potential to reach large populations cost-effectively,” explained the study author. Cornell Vandlanot (@tweet), Research Professor and Future Fellow at Central Queensland University in Australia. “We know that they can improve physical activity outcomes, but little is known about how they positively affect mental health outcomes. The relationship between physical activity and improved mental health outcomes is well established, as in theory, web-based physical activity interventions should work on Improving mental health outcomes.”
For their study, Vandelanotte and his colleagues recruited a sample of 501 Australian residents who were currently inactive (that is, they engaged in less than 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week). At baseline, participants completed sociodemographic scales and measures of depression, anxiety, stress, and health-related quality of life. The participants were then randomly assigned to a control group or a web-based physical activity intervention group.
The intervention group was given access to a work planning tool and eight physical activity sessions delivered over a three-month period. Survey responses and IF-THEN algorithms were used to provide participants with personalized content and advice. The sessions dealt with concepts such as self-efficacy, intentions, and motivation. They also applied the following behavior change techniques: feedback, education, goal setting, habit formation, self-monitoring, action planning, and problem solving. At 3 months and 9 months after baseline, participants again completed psychological assessments.
The results revealed that, at all times, the participants who received the exercise intervention reported lower depression, anxiety, stress and a higher mental quality of life compared to baseline. Moreover, when compared to the control group, they reported decreased depression, anxiety, and stress at the 3-month mark and decreased anxiety at the 9-month mark.
The researchers note that in a previous study, this web-based intervention was found to improve self-reported physical activity but not physical activity as measured via an accelerometer. This is interesting given that the participants nonetheless experienced significant improvements in mental health.
The results indicate that “improvements in mental health can be achieved using web-based physical activity interventions, even if physical activity does not improve (we did not find significant improvement in levels of physical activity using objective measures), but participants believe their physical activity has improved (we found Significant improvements in self-reported activity levels),” Vandelanotte told PsyPost.
The study authors say these findings are consistent with a psychological explanation for the mental health benefits of exercise. It appears that people can experience positive psychological outcomes with physical activity interventions when they think they are becoming more active, even if they don’t actually increase their activity. For example, the intervention may promote feelings of accomplishment and improvements in self-esteem and body image, regardless of whether or not a person increases their exercise.
“What people think happened (they think they were more active), is more important than what actually happened (there was no actual increase in physical activity) for improvements in mental health,” said Vandlanot.
While findings suggest that online physical activity interventions are effective in improving mental health, the previous literature has been mixed. Additional studies will be needed to confirm the results. Furthermore, despite a large, well-powered sample, most study participants reported good mental health at baseline which may limit detection of mental health improvements due to ceiling effects. It is possible that populations with poor mental health – such as the clinical samples – experienced greater mental health effects with the intervention.
“This is only one study, the results need to be confirmed in other studies,” said Vandlanot. “The results do not apply to populations with clinical mental health problems, as participants in this study were in good general mental health even before the study (and the study was able to improve mental health outcomes, but not by much, due to higher limits).”
the study, “Effect of a personally designed, web-based physical activity intervention on depression, anxiety, stress, and quality of life: secondary findings from a randomized controlled trial.Written by Cornell Vandlanot, Mitch J. Duncan, Ronald C. Plotnikoff, Amanda Ribar, Stephanie Alley, Stephanie Schwepp, Queen Two, W. Kerry Mameri, and Camille E. Short.