Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table published its latest findings after examining the pandemic’s impacts on citizens, noting that a lack of physical activity greatly affected the mental health of Canadians.

While daily exercise has been scientifically proven to benefit one’s mental state, the science advisory table found that movement behaviours and mental health statuses worsened among many during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further, the science brief shows that physical activity in some groups, including children, was “disproportionately affected” during the pandemic by various public health measures, such as school and recreation closures.

“For some groups, lack of access to green space and built environment features including neighbourhood walkability make it more challenging to be physically active,” science table advisers said as part of its published findings.

“Those who reported having better mental health during the first few months of the pandemic were more likely to have had higher levels of physical activity during this time.”

RELATED: 40% of Canadian young adults at ‘mental health breaking point:’ poll

Ontario’s science table expects a lack of safe, accessible physical activity opportunities for some populations will continue past the pandemic due to “structural inequities, such as inequities in access to indoor or outdoor recreation spaces.”

Health experts say this could ultimately negatively impact mental health.

“Built environment factors, including neighbourhood walkability, are also important drivers of physical activity,” the science table says.

“Global data indicates that participation in physical activity has been associated with improved quality of life, well-being, and reduced depressive symptoms and anxiety during the pandemic.”

Science table, World Health Organization, share physical activity recommendations

In association with the WHO and guidelines courtesy of the Canadian 24-hour Movement, the science table suggests varied daily exercise routines based on age — including newborns and infants between the ages of one and four.

Advisers say newborns should have at least 30 minutes of tummy time spread out throughout the day, while infants aged 1-2 should partake in “At least 180 minutes… of physical activities of any intensity spread, including energetic play spread throughout the day.”

The World Health Organization and Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table shares data. Photo: COVID-19 Science Briefs.

Adults aged 18 to 64 should engage in “moderate to vigorous” daily activity for at least 60 minutes, such as going on brisk walks for cardio. These health experts suggest “muscle-strengthening activities” at least twice a week.

Adults over 65, including seniors, should accumulate 150 minutes of daily exercise per week, including physical activities that challenge balance.

Ontario’s science advisors say that only half of Canadians reported meeting these guidelines before the pandemic but concluded that there is evidence of physical and mental benefits even if these suggestions weren’t met.

“Healthy individuals who performed [physical activity] of any type were more likely to report greater emotional and physical well-being regardless of individual baseline fitness level,” the science table noted.

“Stay-at-home orders, as well as closures of indoor and outdoor spaces to mitigate the spread of [COVIUD-19], both globally and in Ontario, have led to the unintended consequence of reducing physical activity.”

The science table notes that increasing physical activity and decreasing sedentary behaviour have positive effects on mental well-being and are associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Photo: Robert Collins.

Science table advisers say that in Canada, daily physical activity declined significantly following the pandemic’s start in March 2020. They cite evidence of decreases in moderate-to-vigorous activity, light exercise and the average number of steps taken and increased time spent sedentary during the early part of the pandemic.

“Overall, Canadians who reported having better mental health during the first few months of the pandemic were more likely to have had higher levels of physical activity during this time.”

Child-care responsibilities have affected daily physical activity for Canadian women 

The science table examined age demographics and the difference in physical activity in men and women during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings show that before the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian women were less likely to meet physical activity guidelines than men, with that trend continuing.

A leading factor, the science table says, could be that women have been “disproportionately impacted by child-care responsibilities due to the closures of schools and daycare.”

“Amongst older adults, women in Canada experienced a greater increase in social isolation during the pandemic than men,” science table advisers noted.

“Lower levels of PA and increased SB during the pandemic, compared to 6 months prior, were associated with greater deterioration in mental health in Canadian women in early adulthood, although one motivator of PA was the relief of anxiety.”

Further, Ontario’s science advisory table says that young adults suffered the most compared to other age groups with a lack of activity during COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, only 10 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students met the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines.

“A recent population-based survey found that the association between low PA and increased stress during the pandemic was the strongest in this age group,” they noted. “Students who engaged in PA had lower levels of anxiety and depression compared to inactive students.”

The science table says additional strategies to increase physical activity in the population “should be comprehensive
and address individual, clinical, policy and underlying socioeconomic factors” to enable participation across the life course.

“Promoting physical activity can help optimize physical and mental health among Ontarians during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.”