OSU pandemic study shows leisure activities can improve mental health

OSU study: leisure activities can help cure COVID blues

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Teach yourself a new language or take on a new skill during lockdown? New research out of Oregon State University suggests all that “idle time” could have a major impact on your overall mental health.

The study led by Xiangyou Shen, an assistant professor of OSU’s College of Forestry, surveyed over 500 people from February 3-15 last year to analyze levels of stress, depression and overall physical and mental health in relation to the participants’ engagement in leisure activities .

“Leisure is so crucial to our mental health,” Shen stated in an OSU release. “Despite all the disruptions to daily life, physical distancing, movement restrictions and closures of indoor leisure facilities, we found that people continue to use leisure to help them cope with stress and as a way to navigate life during COVID-19.”

According to OSU, study participants were asked to list their leisure activities along with how often they engaged. Results showed those who frequently took part in leisure activities reportedly experienced reduced levels of stress and depression.

The study’s findings were published in January of 2022 and can be viewed here.

OSU analyzed a representative sample of participants from diverse backgrounds to categorized a list of popular leisure activities and found, “home-based offline activities were most popular, within 43.4% citing a favorite this domain; then screen-based digital/online activities, with 32.1%; and lastly physical or outdoor activities, with 24.5%.”

According to the survey, participation in home-based activities like reading, writing and video games rose during the pandemic, while interest in outdoor physical activities dropped.

OSU found that “24% of respondents reported major depressive symptoms, 13% reported severe or extremely severe stress, and 7% reported poor mental well-being.”

The research found changed activity levels amid COVID, along with large gaps between participants’ actual activity engagement levels and their idealized level of engagement, had a larger impact on mental health than the activity type or frequency in participation.

The study also highlighted a trend in which participants appeared to turn to leisure activities as a way to cope with increased stress levels.

“We see that people who reported higher stress also reported increased engagement in their leisure activity,” Shen said. “But if they were able to increase their engagement or maintain it, they did not report more depressive symptoms.”

Shen continued on to say it’s okay for people to experience high stress if they also maintain or adapt what they do in leisure time as a “protective buffer.”

“Failing to maintain or make adaptive changes, you are at higher risk for depression,” she explained.

But according to the study, not everyone has equal access to leisure activities. OSU found parents had much lower levels of leisure activity engagement than non-parents.

Additionally, as part of a series of leisure studies conducted during COVID, this study illustrated far fewer reports of outdoor activity engagement, which researchers theorize may be a reflection of decreased accessibility to outdoor recreation for some groups.

“This pandemic exposes some of the social problems we already have and the disparities in how much time people have for self-care,” Shen said. “Parents, especially women, as caregivers who don’t have enough child care support and are also working full-time — these people are among the most vulnerable.”

Megan MacDonald, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said the study’s most critical finding was the importance of leisure activities to the success of an individual’s overall health and wellbeing.

“It’s a reminder for all of us that it really is important to take time for yourself and make sure that you’re engaging in those activities and don’t beat yourself up for taking that time,” she stated. “We need rest and relaxation as well, but leisure and play can be more engaging and redirect in a different way, one that’s helping us take a breath away from some of that other stress.”

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