The Coronavirus pandemic is having a huge impact on people’s physical and mental health. 

Since the UK Government’s lockdown measures began on March 23rd, many people have been struggling with social distancing measures.  

Family members from different households have been unable to visit one another and children have been kept from school friends.  Employees face job uncertainty and business owners may be concerned about the future of their companies. Keyworkers are working in environments where the infection is a real risk, and there’s added anxiety for anyone made vulnerable by pre-existing health problems.  

And we’re all grieving for the lives we once had: the trips to the gym, to the coffee shops and bars, our holidays, day trips, celebrations and parties, now seem like something from another life. 

It’s no wonder that people’s mental health is suffering. 

A recent study by the Mental Health Foundation found that almost one-quarter of UK adults had felt lonely at some point during lockdown.  It raises concerns for the long-term implications of social distancing and isolation on the population’s general wellbeing. 

And that’s even before we consider that depression is already the world’s leading cause of illness. 

Can Exercise Benefit Mental Health? 

Exercise has been shown to reduce the symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. 

One study showed the anti-depressant effect of aerobic exercise on mental health.  It’s not a cure, and it won’t help those suffering from severe or chronic depression, but for those people prone to milder bouts of low mood it’s good news.  

Scott Douglas writing for SLATE magazine says the evidence also suggests that exercise actually changes the brain so exercising for better mental health is more than just a temporary measure.  Its effects are permanent.  

At a time when so many mental health charities and schemes are concerned about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on people’s health, exercise is an ideal starting point in reducing mental anguish.

How Does Exercise Benefit Mental Health?

During high-intensity exercise, the body releases neurotransmitters called serotonin and norepinephrine which along with dopamine helps regulate the body’s mood.  It’s not just high-intensity exercises, either.  Feel-good chemicals are released during activities like yoga and weightlifting, too. 

Exercise also reduces the amount of cortisol in the body.  Cortisol is a stress hormone. 

Norepinephrine also changes the way our brains deal with stress.  It’s one reason why many of us report feeling less wound up after a workout.  It seems, too, that those who exercise in the morning are better placed to deal with sadness later in the day.  

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the body and the brain are connected.  For some people, relief from mild forms of depression caused by COVID-19 could be as simple as going for a brisk walk. 

What Does Incentivising Fitness Mean? 

There’s evidence to suggest that incentivising fitness helps people make better decisions.  Groups or companies might set-up a scheme where users are rewarded for working out.  It could be a tangible prize like a free cinema ticket or cash amount or it could be something a little more playful like points in a league table, a badge or virtual trophy. 

Adding incentives can make exercising more tempting for those who normally find motivation difficult.

GymCoin, for example, rewards users with a digital currency when they workout regularly, allowing them to purchase real-world benefits like gym membership passes and clothing. 

Research by RAND found that you can also incentivise by loss-framing, too.  In its study, users were able to pay for an Apple watch in monthly instalments.  The more regularly they exercised, the lower their monthly premiums were to pay for the watch.  The results were that 34% of participants started exercising more regularly. 

Incentives don’t have to be physical rewards, either.  Run! Zombies Run! Is a popular running app that has gamified jogging by advancing an immersive storyline each time you workout. 

Nike+ uses badges and trophies to celebrate exercising over certain distances or on set days. 

The NHS uses Active10 which encourages people to walk rather than drive and to make simple lifestyle swaps to exercise more frequently. 

How Can Mental Health Schemes Benefit from Incentivising Fitness During Lockdown?

We know that people are at risk of greater mental health problems during the current pandemic. 

Many of these problems will have manifested as anxiety and mild depression in people who may have no previous history of mental illness. 

Giving people the tools to manage their own mood rather than letting them suffer in silence or have them wait to access NHS services makes sense for everyone. 

Mental health schemes can take a proactive approach in supporting those who are finding the current pandemic difficult to process. 

Incentives are also useful in attracting people who may not normally seek help or those who haven’t exercised effectively before and are unsure of where to start.  

The current pandemic could be an opportunity to teach people about managing their own mental health through fitness. Offering an incentive could be the carrot that some of the most vulnerable need to get moving for their own mental health.  

If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety during the current pandemic, mental health charity MIND has a list of useful contacts.  

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