A Binghamton University study suggests women should exercise moderately during periods of high stress.
Lina Begdache, an associate professor of health and wellness studies, began the study before the COVID-19 shutdown. Begdache, interested in how the pandemic was disrupting routine, wanted to research how sudden lifestyle changes can impact well-being. According to the study’s abstract, data was collected from a survey asking questions about 41 different lifestyle-related variables, conducted from September 2018 to November 2021.
The survey, which had 2,730 participants, allowed the researchers to identify and compare the mental health trends before, during and after the COVID-19 shutdown. Of these respondents, 68 percent were female and 92 percent were between the age of 18 and 29. The data collected during COVID-19 showed that women benefited more from exercising in moderation during the shutdown, whereas men benefited from more frequent exercise.
Exercise is still a form of stress, and while it may be beneficial in controlled doses, when overdone it can have a negative impact — particularly on women’s health, according to Begdache.
“Exercise is known to have an anti-depressant effect because it modulates brain chemistry, typically in a favorable way,” Begdache wrote in an email. “Exercise is a form of stress on the body, so when it is performed excessively, it may bring some negative effects.”
According to data collected from the survey, women likely experienced more stress from frequent exercise during COVID-19 because of the expectation often placed on them to work and homeschool their children simultaneously.
Zeynep Ertem, an associate professor of systems science and industrial engineering, was also involved in the study. Ertem said gender roles are the probable cause for increased stress levels in women, and likely influenced the data.
“If women are working at home, during [COVID-19], for instance, all other side jobs are attached to women,” Ertem said. “So the burden of life is more on women. For instance, childcare and housework are all on top of women. So they are more stressed on weekdays.”
Statistics changed with the emergence of the post-shutdown time frame. Begdache said that while women benefited significantly from moderate exercise during COVID-19, post-pandemic results show women aligning more with men, with both groups requiring frequent workouts.
“Two important things are learned from these findings,” Begdache wrote in an email. “There is a need to adjust exercise frequency in women to maximize mental well-being, and one size does not fit all for men and women when it comes to exercise frequency recommendations.”
The data from the research is directly reflected in participation rates at campus gyms.
Laura Cichostepski, the assistant director of marketing for campus recreation, said less students are exercising at the East Gym since before the pandemic. However, Cichostepski expects this number to increase as the pandemic declines.
“We had a higher volume of check-ins before [COVID-19], but this year we are making our way back to pre-pandemic numbers in all areas of Campus Recreation, including club sports and intramurals,” Cichostepski said. “Our Outdoor Pursuits program saw an increase in participation rates after the onset of the pandemic, with students eager to connect with others, get exercise and enjoy nature.”
Anseh Danesharasteh, a third-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D in system science and industrial engineering, is one of Ertem’s students, and completed the research alongside her professor and Begdache. Danesharasteh explained that the study is valuable because it can help people adjust their exercise schedules during high-stress times.
“This research is interesting and important, since it can provide a framework to optimize mental health during different stages of future pandemics by customizing physical exercise frequencies based on gender and time of the week,” Danesharasteh wrote in an email.
Multiple students expressed interest in the study’s results.
Shira Nasibi, an undeclared freshman who was interested in the study’s consideration of gender roles, said she was intrigued by how the data reflects the daily stresses placed on many women.
“I think it’s interesting how women were more stressed on the weekdays than over the weekends, and how it directly correlated to taking care of kids at home during COVID-19 and homeschooling, because over the weekends, obviously, they are not being homeschooled,” Nasibi said.
Jacey Ruisi, a sophomore majoring in English, said exercise benefitted her well-being both during and after the COVID-19 shutdown.
“I definitely felt more compelled to exercise during [COVID-19] and now in its aftereffect,” Ruisi said. “At the beginning, it was more so to have a quarantine transformation, but as time went on, exercise seemed more like a coping mechanism and a way to just feel better overall.”