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A recent Montana State University study shows a critical link between exercise and mental health during the pandemic, particularly in rural areas.

An online survey of over 4,000 people conducted in Montana and four other states highlighted the close ties between physical activity and mental health, with people who reported challenges to staying active during the pandemic also experiencing worsening mental health, according to researchers.

“Oftentimes, physical activity gets treated as this luxury piece,” said Michelle Grocke-Dewey, the paper’s lead author and a health and human development professor at MSU. “But what we’re really seeing from this data is it’s such a protective factor, especially for our rural areas.”

When the pandemic hit, the group of researchers wanted to take a look at what health behaviors might change. The paper was published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports in August.

While the paper focuses on the findings between physical activity and mental health, the survey covered a variety of behavior changes, both healthy and unhealthy. The correlation between physical activity and mental health stood out to the researchers when they were reviewing the data.

“I didn’t realize the connection would be so strong, that really getting outside, staying active was keeping their mental health in check,” Grocke-Dewey said.

The survey was initially sent to Montana residents but the researchers decided to broaden the scope and included Louisiana, North Carolina, Oregon and West Virginia with survey responses collected between April and September 2020.

Grocke-Dewey said researchers also wanted to ensure the demographics of respondents were representative of urban and rural areas, and a broad economic range.

One surprise the researchers found was that people living in rural areas reported better mental health than those living in urban areas, Grocke-Dewey said.

The researchers also found participants who lived in rural areas were less likely to report difficulty maintaining their pre-pandemic physical activity compared to those in urban areas. Grocke-Dewey said this could be because people in rural areas rely less on gyms or exercise classes than those in urban areas.

“It was those that were living in rural areas that were able to mitigate their mental health deteriorations with physical activity,” Grocke-Dewey said.

Montana residents still reported an impact on their mental health during the pandemic though. Out of the 1,944 Montana residents who responded, 57% said it was more challenging than usual to get the same amount of physical activity as before the pandemic.

Grocke-Dewey said it’s important to consider the impact money can have on the access to physical activity resources.

The researchers found the higher a person’s household income, the more likely they were to maintain their pre-pandemic physical activity levels, with people in households earning less than $50,000 per year 1.46 times less likely to continue their pre-pandemic exercise levels.

Survey respondents suggested cost-effective measures their communities could do to make it easier for them to do exercise or remain physically active, including having sidewalks or walking paths in their town and well-lit areas to walk, Grocke-Dewey said.

Participants also pointed to steps their employers could take to make it easier for them to be active, Grocke-Dewey said. Some of the suggestions included flexibility to take an hour to exercise during the day, taking work calls while walking or incentives to make physical activity a regular habit.

Grocke-Dewey acknowledged incorporating physical activity into the work day is easier for some jobs than others but employers could find ways to encourage employees to take time during the work day to exercise.

“It’s one thing if you’re working for a tech firm, you can easily step out and be active. It’s quite another if you’re working 12 hour shifts at the airport or jobs you clock in and clock out of,” Grocke-Dewey said.

Moving forward, Grocke-Dewey said it’s important for policy makers and people working in public health to recognize the protective impact physical activity can play on mental health.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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