Societal crises and personal challenges are often followed by substantial changes in physical activity. Is there a link between such changes and psychological well-being? Seeking to answer this question, we conducted a correlational study on a representative sample in Sweden during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic (N = 1035). About 49% of the sample had decreased their physical activity compared to their self-reported activity level prior to the pandemic, whereas 32% had increased it. The results showed a positive and robust association between changes in daily activity level and corresponding changes in psychological well-being. Specifically, individuals who had reduced their physical activity over the last year reported lower life satisfaction than before, and individuals who had increased their physical activity reported higher life satisfaction than before. The amount of complete physical inactivity (sitting) showed a similar pattern as the exercise data, meaning that individuals who reported increasing inactivity per day also reported a greater decline in life satisfaction. Additional analyses showed that the association between daily activity level and life satisfaction was somewhat stronger for men than for women, but there was no difference when comparing individual versus organized activities. The current study was based on a cross-sectional design, measuring self-reported change over time. Recent work from other research teams have used longitudinal data and experience-sampling in different settings, finding similar results. We conclude that there is good reason to recommend physical exercise as a coping strategy in difficult times.
Keywords: COVID-19; exercise; happiness; inactivity; life satisfaction; physical activity; well-being.