Leisure engagement has risen as a salient societal issue during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only because it provides a pathway for people to continue meeting their physical, cognitive, and social-emotional needs, but also due to the phenomenal juxtaposition of general increases in leisure time and unparalleled constraints. This study reports the results of the first investigation of U.S. adults' overall leisure engagement and its association with mental health amidst the major disruptions and sustained stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. Qualitative and quantitative data were collected through an online survey in February 2021 through Prolific from a sample representative of the U.S. adult population in age, gender, and race (n = 503) and analyzed using a mixed-method approach. A total of 104 unique leisure activities in 19 categories and 3 domains were identified through iterative thematic coding. Participants reported general increases in home-based traditional leisure and digital/online activities and decreases in physical and nature-based activities. Multiple regression analyses controlling for socio-demographic and context-specific covariates revealed distinct associations between changes in leisure engagement and different aspects of mental health (perceived stress, depressive symptoms, and mental wellbeing), supporting leisure's dual role in facilitating stress alleviation and wellbeing enhancement during taxing events, such as COVID-19.
Keywords: COVID-19; digital leisure; leisure engagement; nature-based activity; pandemic; physical activity; stress alleviation; subjective wellbeing; sustained stress; wellbeing.