Fewer Steps, Longer Hours During Pandemic Increase Depression, Study Suggests

05 Mar, 2021 Nancy Grover


Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Getting in your steps may be more important than ever these days. Incidents of depression and anxiety have increased since the start of the pandemic as many workers have gone to a work-from-home (WFH) model. A new study suggests a decrease in physical activity may have more to do with the mental health of employees than anything else.

“The present study found that decreased weekday steps and increased working hours were associated with increased odds of depressive symptoms during the government declaration of a state of emergency,” according to a new study; “conversely, starting working from home was negatively associated with risk.” The findings were published in the BMJ journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.


Japan had requested residents to stay at home, starting in early April and into May. Though it was not enforceable, a majority of residents adhered to the request. 

“The stay-at-home recommendation during the declaration period hampered people from making physical contact with other family members, friends and colleagues, which may have led to feelings of loneliness and depressive symptoms,” the study says. “Moreover, physical inactivity due to staying at home can be associated with depressive symptoms.”

The research was based on an online survey of Japanese residents using a specific health app, where they record their diets, exercise, mood and quality of sleep. Artificial intelligence offers them advice based on their responses. There were 2,846 participants included in the analyses.

“On average, participants saw a decrease of more than 1100 weekday steps during the declaration period,” the study said. “Given decreased weekday steps represented physical inactivity during the declaration period, our findings are consistent with previous studies which showed associations between physical inactivity and increased risks of depression during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Effects of Movement

Physical activity is important in staving off depression from both a biological and psychosocial standpoint. Research suggests movement can enhance neuroplasticity and reduce inflammatory, oxidative stress and cortisol release from the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which can help reduce depression. Physical activity is also associated with positive self-esteem and self-efficacy, both of which help protect against depression.

The study found that those most impacted by reduced physical activity were those who were more likely to exercise before the WFH period. One previous study they noted indicated that people who became physically inactive during the pandemic were more likely to be lonely than those who were consistently inactive — before and during the pandemic.

“People who were consistently inactive may have been able to adapt to the stay-at-home habits easily,” they wrote, “whereas those who had been active might have had difficulty in coping with the discrepancy.”

The Isolation Factor

While the social isolation resulting from working at home has been associated with depression, the study suggested that was less of a factor — at least in the initial WFH period. The researchers examined the issue.

“Social isolation can evoke feelings of loneliness, and stress from loneliness activates the HPA axis more frequently and elevates cortisol level, which can contribute to the pathophysiology of depression,” they wrote. “Our findings are in line with other COVID-19 studies on approximate concepts, which found that low levels of social capital (‘a series of resources that individuals earn as a result of their membership in social networks’) and social support (consisting of ‘functional social support, the functions fulfilled by social relations, and structural social support, the existence, quantity, and properties of social relations’) were associated with increased anxiety and stress.”

However, the authors found that workers included in this study, which was at the very beginning of WFH efforts, may actually have been beneficial in helping to prevent depression. “…it enabled workers to keep working and communicating with their colleagues during the declaration period, which helped them have a sense of belonging,” they said. “WFH may also reduce the fear of infection at or on the way to work.”

At the same time, however, WFH was associated with longer working hours for some, which was associated with an increased likelihood of depression.

Advice for Employers

“Employers and the regulatory authority should monitor employees’ working hours and ensure minimum rest periods to protect employees’ health,” the authors concluded. “Health promotions for consistent physical activities, breaking up sedentary time and maintaining social relationships during the pandemic appear to be beneficial to public mental health. For individuals, it is important to keep track of health behaviours to help them monitor changes in work and life patterns and compensate for potentially detrimental factors.”


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    About The Author

    • Nancy Grover

      Nancy Grover is a freelance writer having recently retired as the Director, Media Services for WorkersCompensation.com. She comes to our company with more than 35 years as a broadcast journalist and communications consultant. Grover’s specialties include insurance, workers’ compensation, financial services, substance abuse, healthcare and disability. For 12 years she served as the Program Chair of the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. A journalism/speech graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, Grover also holds an MBA from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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