USC REACH Lab examines the impact of COVID-19 on physical activity and mental health

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April 28, 2020
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coronavirus, Genevieve Dunton, mental health, physical activity, REACH Lab

The Real-time Eating, Activity, and Children’s Health (REACH) Lab in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC has launched a study into how COVID-19 is impacting physical activity and mental health in US adults. Investigators are gathering real-time data on physical activity and mental health before, during, and after the pandemic, by prompting participants to complete short, twice daily surveys via a smartphone app.

USC's REACH Lab is currently recruiting for a study on how physical activity and mental health is being affected by COVID-19.
USC’s REACH Lab is currently recruiting for a study on how physical activity and mental health are affected by COVID-19.

REACH Lab Director, Genevieve Dunton, PhD, MPH, says they hope to discover both the short-term and long-term effects of COVID-19 and response measures on physical activity and mental health.”With restrictions on travel, and limited or no access to gyms, parks and trails, peoples’ ability to engage in physical activity certainly has changed over the past month,” says Dunton. “We’re really interested in trying to understand that, and, even more so, how these changes in their physical activity patterns are related to their mental health now and in the future.”

By utilizing real-time data collection methods, the team has already identified some preliminary patterns in physical activity among study participants. “We do see some declines as we would hypothesize,” says Dunton, citing that participants reported a decrease in vigorous and moderate-intensity physical activity, as well as the number of days they are walking, when comparing February to April. Researchers will have to gather more data to determine if and how this trend continues long-term. “One of the biggest questions,” according to Dunton, “is whether these initial changes we see in peoples’ physical activity are going to persist, or are people able to adjust and find new ways to maintain their activity. Do new habits form, good or bad?”

Woman using smartphone or mobile phone
Photo courtesy Porapak Apichodilok.

Researchers will also be looking at how this physical activity data correlates with mental health. “Rates of depression and anxiety were already at all-time highs before the COVID-19 pandemic. Fear of contracting the disease, loss of employment, disruption to daily routines, and loneliness may exacerbate underlying mental health issues. Whether mental health concerns brought on by the pandemic abate or persist after six to twelve months is what we’re looking into,” says Dunton.    

Ultimately the answers REACH Lab uncovers could implicate lasting physical and mental health changes in the United States. “So, what’s going to happen in terms of long-term physical activity trajectories? Physical activity we’re very interested in, because it’s tied very closely to reduced risks in a number of chronic diseases, including diabetes, cancer and heart disease,” says Dunton. “Physical activity may actually turn out to be an important protective factor against COVID-19 infection and mortality. Therefore, there are many reasons to understand how to promote and maintain physical activity during this crisis.”

— by Carolyn Barnes

REACH Lab is focused on understanding physical activity, eating, and obesity risk in children and families by utilizing real-time data capture methods. If you are over the age of 18, speak and read English, use an Android or iOS smartphone, and are interested in this study, please visit: https://is.gd/reachlab