OK In Health - Exercise

At-Home Exercise for Depression - January 2022

Does it help?

By OK In Health's Articles

girls with mental health sadness

One of the strategies to address mental health advocated by the World Health Organization and other international government agencies is to encourage participation in physical activity and exercise to attain and maintain mental health. The world has experienced a significant global rise in depressive symptoms with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic closed gyms and fitness classes, the public turned to fitness apps. The World Economic Forum website cites a study finding that fitness app downloads increased by nearly 50 percent during the first half of 2020.

To address physical activity during COVID-19, a UBC research team developed an app-based exercise program. The study’s primary mental health outcome was depressive symptoms since loneliness/social isolation are strongly associated with depression. The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, lasted six weeks (May to August 2020).

The UBC researchers partnered with a mobile application company, DownDog, to develop the app. Researchers recruited participants from across Canada through social media advertisements, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The researchers assigned 334 adults, more women than men, between 18 and 64 years old who were considered “low active,” i.e., not engaging in or doing low levels of regular physical activity, to one of four groups: a yoga group, a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) group, a group combining both types of exercise, and a waitlist control group whose members maintained their current activity levels. Participants in the treatment groups engaged in a minimum of four weekly 20-minute sessions for six weeks. The research team measured participants’ depressive symptoms weekly.

The findings included: 

All participants in the exercise groups showed improved depressive symptoms compared to the control group Regardless of the type of movement, researchers saw improved mental health.

In the three exercise groups, 57 percent with high depressive symptoms showed a significant decrease in symptoms. For the waitlist control participants, depressive symptoms remained steady throughout the six weeks. The rates of decline in depressive symptoms for each group were −3.39 (HIIT+yoga), −3.24 (HIIT), −3.18 (yoga) and −1.18 (waitlist control group)The most significant impact was experienced by those with high depressive symptoms in the combination exercise group.

By the end of the study, 72 percent had ceased having significant depressive symptoms. Why? A possible reason is that these individuals were engaging in various exercises four or more times per week. The variety was motivating, i.e., this group completed the most minutes of activity every week. Previous research has found that people who participate in various exercises are most likely to report more sustained physical activity.

The research team concluded that community programmers could widely distribute these low-cost and accessible exercises for managing depression, especially to those living with high levels of depressive symptoms. The benefits are significant given the long-term mental health consequences of COVID-19.

This app is an example of an in-home exercise program requiring little space and no equipment. Dr. Eli Puterman, an associate professor at UBC’s school of kinesiology and the Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Health and co-author of the study, hopes to see these kinds of initiatives integrated into clinical and health policy initiatives in the future.

At-home exercises could be a global public health promotion strategy with significant personal, social and economic implications for a world with COVID-19.


The PC Magazine website lists the best workout apps for 2022. While most require a subscription, some are available at no costConsider virtual fitness classes or online videos if you don't use apps. A list of virtual fitness classes is available at the BC Recreation and Parks Association (BCRPA) website. The Active Aging Canada website "Active Aging at Home" page lists several organizations offering online fitness videos Source: UBC press release, World Economic Forum website


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