Even cities that provide parks and trails for people to exercise and stay fit saw their mental health deteriorate during the pandemic.
The annual ranking of the nation’s toughest cities for the first time included data on the pandemic’s toll on mental health. With social isolation, job losses and supply chain challenges stressing Americans, nearly 40% of adults in the nation’s 100 largest cities reported poor mental health.
“We found that cities ranked in the top 25 tended to score well on indicators of personal health, but the only exception was mental health,” said Stella L. Volpe, chair of the American Fitness Index’s advisory board.
She said the finding does not undermine the evidence linking exercise and physical activity to improved mental health. “Beyond the physical health benefits, we also know that regular physical activity can provide mental health and social health benefits,” she said.
The American College of Sports Medicine and the Elevance Health Foundation have released their annual American Fitness Index ranking the nation’s 100 most populous cities over the past decade and a half. The ranking evaluates communities using city and county data on 34 personal, community and environmental indicator variables.
Arlington, Virginia, was the nation’s top community for the fifth year in a row. Rounding out the top five: Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis; Washington DC; and Seattle.
Oklahoma City ranks at the bottom of the list. North Las Vegas, Nevada, Tulsa, Indianapolis and Louisville round out the bottom five. People can see how their city fared at americanfitnessindex.org/rankings.
How much did your mental health suffer?
Adults who had not previously reported anxiety or depression were more likely to report poor mental health during the pandemic. Some common causes may include social isolation, job loss or working in high-risk service jobs that were more likely to expose individuals to COVID-19, the report said.
Among adults who never had a mental health struggle, 58% perceived that the pandemic negatively affected their emotional or mental health.
More than 51% of adults in New Orleans and Laredo, Texas, had at least one bad mental health day in the past month. Residents of San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and San Jose, California, finished with the lowest mental health scores even though all three cities ranked among the healthiest, the report said.
The revelation comes after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of nearly 800,000 adults through February 1, 2021 found that a growing portion of the population reported symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“It’s widely accepted that rates of anxiety and depression are two to three times what they were (before) the pandemic, and they haven’t leveled off,” said Dr. Joe Parks, medical director of the National Council on Mental Welfare. .
Can physical activity improve mental health?
Physical and mental health are closely related. Research shows that both aerobic exercise and strength training can prevent or reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, the report said.
The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, as well as strength training twice a week. More than one in five adults did not exercise at all in the past month, and nearly half of adults did not get enough aerobic activity, according to the report.
Volpe said a lack of exercise is a missed opportunity for those looking to improve their mood and overall health.
“Research strongly shows that aerobic and strength training is effective in preventing and reducing anxiety and depression and improving mood, health and sleep quality,” said Volpe.
Parks said physical and mental health are closely related. People with mental illness are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes or heart failure.
“When people don’t feel well mentally, more often than not, their physical health will suffer,” Parks said. “And when people have poor physical health, their mental health is not so good.”
How can cities combat mental health problems?
American College of Sports Medicine officials said cities, community and business leaders can all act to improve overall health in their respective communities.
An example: Opening up access to green spaces in neighborhoods to make areas more walkable. Arlington, which includes biking and walking as part of the county’s transportation master plan, boasts 527 miles of sidewalks and 14.5 miles of hiking trails.
Communities also could access funding for mental health programs under the bipartisan gun safety bill signed last month by President Joe Biden. While the gun safety law strengthens background checks for gun purchases, the law includes $8.6 billion to support certified community behavioral health clinics in every state. Kaiser Health News reported.
Parks said eight states that opened these clinics as part of a Medicaid pilot program have significantly improved access to mental health and drug and alcohol treatment. The legislation would allow up to 10 states each year to add such clinics, but states must track funding.
“The federal government is providing an opportunity, but it’s up to individual states to take that opportunity and take advantage of it to give people better access,” Parks said.
Ken Alltucker is on Twitter at @kalltucker, or can be emailed at [email protected]