Certainly, an active lifestyle positively contributes to maintaining physical health. Moreover, an increasingly higher number of evidence also shows the benefits of physical activity towards mental health. Surely, physical activity has recently been given significant attention as a modifiable risk factor in preventing depression. For example, several studies have shown that a significant percentage of patients with depression do not meet recommended physical activity guidelines [1]. Truly, this is unfortunate, because it has been previously shown that exercise has a large and significant antidepressant effect on patients with depression [2]. Nevertheless, the relationship between depression and exercise is tricky, since the more depressed a person is, the less energy and motivation they have to move, and thus making it difficult to understand what is cause or consequence.

At first, confusion might arise when discussing how much physical activity has some impact on mental health. Well, let’s start with the basics. Indeed, the term ‘physical activity’ is very generic, as it refers to everything that has to do with moving within our surroundings; from daily chores such as cleaning or gardening, to going for a walk or a run along our favorite trail. In brief, these activities sum up and count towards being physically active.

Now, although evidence is not fully consistent regarding how much activity is needed to witness mental health benefits, the idea is that even small amounts of daily physical activity positively contribute to mental health. For instance, some studies point towards the concept that light/moderate-intensity activity (e.g. during walking) can have stronger effects on mental health compared to higher intensity activity, such as that achieved during exercise [3]. Therefore, if you were thinking that you needed a big workout to influence your mood, think twice and go for a walk: it might have a stronger impact than you imagined!

The impact of the pandemic

Undoubtedly, this subject is of particular relevance when talking about the times we are currently going through. As we are all aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed some of the harshest restrictions to daily living that modern society has ever seen; what has become known as ‘lockdown’. For a considerable amount of time during the past two years, people were restricted to living inside their homes, unable to go outside unless strictly necessary.

Hence, this resulted in significant reductions of physical activity, with potential negative short- and long-term effects on mental health. A recent systematic literature review showed that, although the pandemic increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, people who performed physical activity on a regular basis had lower chances of presenting these types of symptomatology [4]. Indeed, this is a positive indication that physical activity has had a protective role on mental health during the pandemic. Nonetheless, it’s worrying that some people were not freely able to be active whenever they wanted.

How does it all connect?

As discussed earlier in this blog, cancer survivors are at a particularly sensitive place when it comes to mental health. In fact, evidence suggests higher prevalence of several mental disorders in survivors, as compared to the general population. In this regard, the FAITH project wants to develop a tool that remotely monitors downward trajectories of cancer survivors’ mental health, partly aided by the assessment of physical activity. Thus, this tool will be able to do so not only during the normal day-to-day life of these individuals, but also at more challenging times, such as during a pandemic.

In conclusion, physical activity is one of the easiest types of data to collect given the current technology, and can be collected in large quantities. In FAITH, we want to tap into this stream of data to improve the ability to detect, as early as possible, the development of mental health problems in cancer survivors. We believe that this is a powerful approach that could serve a similar purpose in the general population, helping us to detect and fight depression.

Authors: Pedro Correia Ferreira, Joaquim Alves da Silva, Albino Oliveira-Maia, Champalimaud Research and Clinical Centre – Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (Lisbon, Portugal).


[1] F. Schuch et al., “Physical activity and sedentary behavior in people with major depressive disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” J. Affect. Disord., vol. 210, pp. 139–150, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2016.10.050
[2]F. B. Schuch, D. Vancampfort, J. Richards, S. Rosenbaum, P. B. Ward, and B. Stubbs, “Exercise as a treatment for depression: a meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias,” J. Psychiatr. Res., 2016. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2016.02.023
[3] B. D. Sylvester, R. Ahmed, S. Amireault, and C. M. Sabiston, “Changes in light-, moderate-, and vigorous-intensity physical activity and changes in depressive symptoms in breast cancer survivors: a prospective observational study,” Support. Care Cancer, vol. 25, no. 11, pp. 3305–3312, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00520-017-3745-1
[4] S. Wolf et al., “Is Physical Activity Associated with Less Depression and Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic? A Rapid Systematic Review,” Sport. Med., vol. 51, no. 8, pp. 1771–1783, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01468-z