Outdoor Sports and Exercise Can Help Fight Pandemic Depression

Health & Gender Policy Brief #127 | By: Yelena Korshunov | January 25, 2022

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Policy Summary

“Depression on my left. Loneliness on my right. They don’t need to show me their badges. I know these guys very well,” wrote Elizabeth Gilbert in her New York Times bestseller, Eat Pray Love. Can you imagine that one in three of your neighbors suffers from pandemic depression? Or maybe you are the one who knows what depression feels like?

According to a Boston University School of Public Health study, depression among adults in the US tripled in the early 2020 months of the coronavirus pandemic. It jumped from 8.5 percent before the pandemic to a shocking 27.8 percent. The Boston University study revealed that the rate of depression has worsened in 2021, climbing to 32.8 percent and affecting 1 in every 3 American adults.

When pandemic fogged the world, people’s accustomed lifestyle drastically changed. Many lost their work and stable income, and had to forego lifetime habits. Sport clubs, theaters, and cinemas had to shut their doors for a long period. Others, like the author of this Brief, were passionate travelers, but this habit was cut by the status quo. Some people are lucky to have a chameleon talent to adapt to the current reality, some are lucky to not face staggered changes, but one in three people all over the country started experiencing anxiety and depression. Since then, many world famous scientific medical institutions have been working toward finding a solution on how to support mental health during the pandemic.

We are used to thinking that jogging, walking, and playing outdoor sports helps us have a healthy body , but a number of recent studies found that being active and spending time outdoors during the pandemic is also extremely important for our mental health. Research at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development showed that less time outdoors leads to brain atrophy, over time and with age, thus spending active time outdoors is vitally important for our mental health.

In Spring and Summer 2020 the healthcare company Kaiser Permanente conducted a study, which involved 20,000 people from Hawaii, Colorado, Georgia, the mid-Atlantic states, and Southern and Northern California. Kaiser Permanente studied the longitudinal associations of physical activity, time spent outdoors in nature and symptoms of depression and anxiety during COVID-19 quarantine and social distancing in the United States. Results were consistent across all demographic subgroups, including white, Hispanic, Black, and Asian respondents. The study found that those who had exercised or spent more time outdoors had lower anxiety and depression scores. These participants also reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression over time. Those who did not report doing any physical activity during lockdown had the highest depression and anxiety scores.

Policy Analysis

A growing body of research  suggests that people of all demographics should be encouraged to participate in outdoor physical activities routinely, and especially during public health emergencies. Outdoor opportunities for physical activity, including parks and other nature venues, should remain open for use and be accessible during the pandemics.

On April 30, 2021, in “A Proclamation on National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, 2021” president Joe Biden shared with the nation that “physical activity is one of the best tools we have to help combat chronic diseases experienced by over half of all Americans.  Even a single session of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity can boost your mood, sharpen your focus, reduce your stress, and improve your sleep.  More regular physical activity — over months or years — can contribute to a reduced risk of depression, heart disease, several types of cancer, dementia, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.”

“No matter our age or ability,” Biden said, “the more that we can make regular physical activity and participation in sports a part of our lives, the better off both we and our Nation will be.”


Pickleball game. 

Photo taken from: The AARP

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Paul Reed, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and Director in the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion also emphasized that “physical activity has many well-established mental health benefits. These are published in the government’s  Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans and include improved brain health and cognitive function, a reduced risk of anxiety and depression, and improved sleep and overall quality of life.”

The author of this Brief solved the problem by switching from traveling abroad to exploring local outdoor activities, e.g. hiking. 


My husband and I were amazed at how many beautiful places and challenging hiking trails we found not far from our home in New York City. The Appalachian trails, Minnewaska, Irvington Woods, and Croton Aqueduct in Hudson Valley became a physical challenge for the body and an admiration for eyes. I discovered pickleball and minigolf appeared to be very close by. 

For 6 years residing in my neighborhood and traveling overseas I didn’t know about this outdoor luxury that abundantly sat right under my nose and cost little to nothing.  Another priceless benefit was meeting a local pickleball community – new people who shared the same passion and became such a great support to fight the pandemic frustration.

Photo from author’s blog: Bear Mountain, Conquered the top!

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

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Best Trails in United States of America https://www.alltrails.com/us

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Fun and Free Family Outdoor Activities in Your State


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Get Outside! https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/recreation.htm

Learn More Resources

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

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Outdoor exercise lessened anxiety and depression



A Proclamation on National Physical Fitness And Sports Month, 2021


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Physical Activity Is Good for the Mind and the Body


Depression Rates in US Tripled When the Pandemic First Hit—Now, They’re Even Worse


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