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Exercise can help health care workers find relief from depressive symptoms, burnout


After COVID-19 conditions slammed clinicians and support staff, researchers examine effects of apps that guide physical activity to improve mental health.

down dog yoga app: © Tada Images - stock.adobe.com

© Tada Images - stock.adobe.com

Physical exercise can counteract melancholy for health care workers – if they stick with fitness plans.

Depressive symptoms, feelings of burnout, and absenteeism all improved over a 12-week period for health care workers (HCWs) using exercise applications on their mobile devices. But over time, there was a decrease in adhering to a requested minimum of 80 minutes of physical activity a week, according to a new study.

COVID-19 vs. clinicians

By now it’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic had “devastating effects on mental health across the globe,” and especially for physicians, nurses, other clinicians, and support staff. Tensions ranged from risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, to people who denied the severity of the pandemic and its health effects, the researchers said.

Now there is a pressing need to deliver innovative and scalable interventions to help the mental health of HCWs, according to the study.

An app-based aid?

To analyze one, researchers found 288 qualifying participants who tested for depressive symptoms, burnout, and absenteeism, within facilities of the Providence Health Care Network in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, a system with about 10,000 HCWs.

Half the study participants received a free one-year subscription to the Down Dog suite of apps by the Yoga Buddhi Co. It featured exercise programs for body weight training, yoga, running, and barre, a fitness regimen based on ballet training. Participants were asked to complete at least four, 20-minute sessions a week for 12 weeks at home or anywhere convenient.

In the first week, 78 participants, or 54.9%, completed 80 minutes or more of exercise using the apps. The number of sessions and total minutes of use declined just about every week, and by week 12, there were 33 participants who completed at least 80 minutes of exercise.

Moving and improving

Participants who completed at least 80 minutes a week showed large reductions in depressive symptoms and medium reductions in cynicism, emotional exhaustion, and professional efficacy. Completing 20 to 79 minutes of exercise a week led to small and significant reductions in cynicism and emotional exhaustion.

No exercise led to no major results. “There were not significant treatment effects for those who had very low engagement of less than” 20 minutes a week, the study said.

“Indeed, our results suggest that at-home exercise can have meaningful effects on HCWs’ well-being and absenteeism when they are given free access to mobile-based exercise apps, provided they continue using these apps,” the study said. “The significant treatment effects of app-based exercise are supported by research that shows incremental increases in exercise lead to incremental increases in physical and mental health, even at levels that fall below recommended guidelines.”

Depressive symptoms and feelings of burnout themselves likely were not to blame for health care workers who did not meet the minimum workout times. During the pandemic, HCWs faced a number of other stressors at home and work that interfered with adherence, the researchers said.

The original investigation, “Effects of 12 Weeks of At-Home, Application-Based Exercise of Health Care Workers’ Depressive Symptoms, Burnout, and Absenteeism: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

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