This study was based on the understanding that physical activity, mental health, and neighborhood conditions may interact with each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study was also based on research findings showing that physical activity is a contributor to mental health. The study aimed to examine how neighborhood conditions changed during the pandemic and how neighborhood conditions were associated with physical activity and mental health during the pandemic.
A nation-wide online survey was conducted with general US adults between April 27 and May 11, 2020. This was during the time when many of the states had enacted pandemic lockdown measures. The number of valid responses was 2667. The survey collected information about participants' demographics, COVID-19 related experiences, perceived neighborhood conditions, physical activity, and mental health. Perceived neighborhood conditions included a focus on social cohesiveness and walkability. Signifiers of social cohesiveness included people in the neighborhood being willing to help each other, trusting one another, getting along with one another, and sharing the same values. Walkability signifiers included sidewalks, attractive sights, other people walking or exercising, and levels of crime and violence.
An analysis of the data showed that neighborhoods with lower poverty have more positively perceived neighborhood conditions including higher social cohesion, fewer sidewalks, more attractive sights, less crime/violence, and less traffic. Neighborhoods with lower poverty also showed more positive change during the pandemic, such as increased walking. Both positive neighborhood conditions and positive changes during the pandemic were associated with higher physical activity. The physical activity in lower poverty neighborhoods, however, tended to be less for household and yard maintenance and more for leisure. Mental health problems were significantly associated with the COVID-19 infection and death and household income level but not with more crime and traffic.
This research suggests that “it is plausible that the disparities of physical activity and mental health by neighborhood exacerbate due to the pandemic and people who living in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods bear increasingly disproportionate burden.” These findings support policies or programs designed to improve the resources and facilities in disadvantaged communities as a mental health measure.