Mental Health Impact: The Legacy of COVID-19

by Victor Brick, republished from Club Solutions Magazine, November 4, 2020

Victor Brick sheds light on the lasting mental health impact of the COVID-19 crisis and shares what can be done about it world-wide.

Everyone is keenly aware of the deleterious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on an individual’s health. Some refer to COVID-19 as the extra 19 pounds they gained during their quarantine. It is also universally acknowledged the pandemic will have a significant negative effect on the economy. Already many businesses, including many health clubs, have declared bankruptcy or simply closed their doors permanently. However, perhaps the longest lasting pernicious effect of the pandemic is the mental health impact. This negative effect could last long after we have lost those 19 pounds and the economy has recovered.

Mental illness is being called the parallel pandemic and the second pandemic by health officials.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll conducted in mid-July, 53% of adults in the United States reported their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. This includes difficulty sleeping or eating, increased alcohol consumption or substance abuse and worsening chronic conditions.

Many of these issues such as alcoholism or drug abuse, could last long after the pandemic has passed. And these statistics are consistent internationally. In an international poll conducted by Euromonitor, all four major demographic groups, those being the Boomers, Gen Xer’s, Millenials and Gen Yer’s listed mental wellbeing as their main reason for working out.

In addition, studies conducted by Gallup show people recover mentally much slower from job loss than even from the death of a loved one if they are out of work for a year or more. This may be due to a feeling of hopelessness and failure or inadequacy. With the carnage sure to come to the economy, this eventuality is inevitable for a great many people.

Finally, in another poll conducted by Gallup, the percentage of people that say they have considered suicide has double from about 5% to 10% since the start of the pandemic. And, unfortunately, when someone says he or she is considering suicide, he or she should be taken seriously.

So, what can be done about the mental health crisis world-wide?

Well, exercise, for one. A vigorous bout of exercise has been shown to be the equivalent of an entry level dose of Zoloft. However, unlike Zoloft, exercise does it naturally by releasing endorphins and hormones, such as serotonin and dopamine, which improve mood and a sense of well-being.

Exercise gives you a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of control over your life – very important emotions during this very trying time. Not to mention, exercise improves general health and improves your immune system. Finally, when done in a safe, sanitary health club environment, working out can countervail the negative effects of isolation due to quarantining.

Mental health is a continuum, with happiness on one end, mild forms of mental health issues such as mild depression and anxiety in the middle, and severe, clinically diagnosed illnesses such as schizophrenia, psychosis and bipolar disorder at the other. Of course, at the very end of the spectrum is suicide. We move up and down this spectrum based on our physiology, which is our physical, chemical and mental make-up, and our psychology, which is our mental state and life events.

And we can move up or down the spectrum very quickly. We can be a nine on a scale from 10 to one for mental well-being one minute, get word of the death of a loved one, and be a three or four the next. People with good coping skills are resilient and able to reverse the trend and move back up the spectrum. People without, or with preexisting physiological or psychological conditions can’t. Often they will require traditional interventions such as medication, psychoanalysis and institutionalization. Holistic therapies such as exercise, nutrition and mind-body practices employed on a regular basis can help build resiliency and prevent people from sliding too far down the spectrum, and help them to recover when they do. 

What kind of exercise should you do to improve mental health?

It is important to balance Yin and Yang activities with Yin being water and Yang being fire. Think of passive holistic practices such as yoga, meditation and sauna as Yin activities and active movement such as traditional exercise and sports as being Yang activities. It is important to have a combination of the two for harmony and balance, both physically and mentally.

In addition, it is important to experience positive stress when you do exercise regardless of what you are doing. Stretch a little further each day, run a little longer or meditate a little deeper. The body responds best to positive stress. As Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” But, notice I said positive stress. If you stretch too far, run to long or try to meditate too hard, not only could you possibly hurt yourself, but you could actually negatively affect your mental state instead of positively affect it.

So, the message is clear. While weight loss is important, the real, insidious threat from the pandemic is the mental health impact. And the answer? Move your mental health.