Mental health impacts of Covid19: Implications for exercise professionals

By Grace McKeonSimon Rosenbaum

Much of the world is currently in an unprecedented lock-down due to the Covid19 pandemic. As we grapple with the immediate and future mental health impacts of this emerging global crisis, we must turn to our toolkit of proven strategies to help navigate these uncharted waters.

Getting people moving is one of the most effective things we can do: exercise is a powerful strategy to improve mood and alleviate symptoms of anxiety, while prolonged sitting is known to negatively affect mood. Now, more than ever, it is important that people remain active.

But, with the disruptions to our normal routines caused by the pandemic and lockdown, there are additional public health considerations to confront:

  • How can we best help as many people as possible to engage in adequate physical activity, while maintaining physical distancing?
  • How can we be mindful of the mental health impacts of this global crisis in our chosen work and day-to-day lives?

Virtual spaces to maintain social distancing

Exercise professionals are already equipped with the knowledge and skills to get people moving, and their expertise is needed to help support the mental health and psychosocial consequences of this outbreak. With the restrictions of movement, closure of gym spaces and restricted access to public exercise spaces, many exercise professionals are turning to online technologies including tele-health, social media and other innovative platforms.

Training our muscles to cope with uncertainty

In this time of uncertainty, feeling overwhelmed, confused or anxious is a reasonable emotional response, for both ourselves and our clients. As exercise professionals we are well-placed to identify individuals at high risk, or those currently experiencing high levels of distress. Some groups will be more vulnerable (e.g. those with pre-existing mental health conditions or the elderly) and may require additional professional support.

It is important to ensure we have some extra resources to not only support our clients but also our family, friends and our own mental health during this time. We created a slide-set with resources, communication do’s and don’ts and some general mental health tips tailored for exercise professionals. Download the slide-set here!

6 ways you can help address the present moment

  • A certain level of fear and anxiety is normal at this time

Even people who don’t normally feel anxious may experience some anxiety or panic during times of uncertainty. Through our roles as exercise professionals, we can make people feel heard, and acknowledge that how they are feeling is understandable and normal. For most of us, this will subside once the pandemic ends

  • Look, listen, link

Look for signs of distress e.g. is your client appropriately dressed? Are they acting themselves? Listen to what they are saying e.g. are they catastrophising? Link them in with support including identifying their existing networks (friends, family). Consider referral and additional professional support if needed.

  • Help people identify and access their existing resources

Humans are incredibly resilient. Sometimes helping people identify things that make them feel better, including their strengths or support networks, can be helpful in times of crises. Encourage connection and be aware of ways for clients to connect like social media groups and apps.

  • Some people will need more help

Before having a tele-health consult, be informed of additional mental health support available in your community including online resources. Be aware of red flags like suicidality or self-harming, or whether symptoms are so severe that they impact someone’s ability to function. Be ready to act and refer vulnerable clients who may need additional mental health services.

  • Don’t underestimate the benefits of getting people moving!

We need to be creative in helping people to safely engage in age and resource-appropriate physical activity, for both mental and physical health. There are already a number of initiatives including QuaranTrain that are helping people connect and maintain regular activity.

  • Your own mental health matters too

It’s important to check in with yourself and take the time to address your own mental health needs. You may not feel equipped to help others deal with their distress for whatever reasons, including your own fear or anxiety. Be mindful of your own self-care and remember we can’t pour from an empty cup.

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To download the PPT with do’s and don’ts and some general mental health tips tailored for exercise professionals, click here.

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