Pandemic, winter taking toll on Canadians’ mental health

Despite winter’s darkest days shortening, the vaccine rollout underway and restrictions lowering daily COVID-19 case counts, the pandemic is taking an ever-increasing toll on Canadians’ mental health.

A Leger survey released Feb. 2 shows that Canadians’ mental health has reached its lowest point since last April, when Leger began tracking the numbers. Only 29 per cent of Canadians rate their mental health as very good or excellent now compared to 42 per cent last April. The web survey of 1,559 Canadians was conducted from Jan. 29 to Jan. 31 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.48 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Canada had a mental health crisis even before the pandemic, with one in two Canadians experiencing mental health disorders by the time they reach 40. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the COVID-19 pandemic has “magnified and added to this crisis and highlighted how crucial mental health promotion and care are to our overall well-being.”

Combined with the disruption of care delivery services, this mental health crisis is a pandemic of its own.

Even in normal times, winter puts a strain on mental health, with one in six Canadians experiencing “winter blues.” The pandemic certainly has not helped these numbers. “As a population, our mood is a bit lower during winter, so that is a natural cycle,” says Gary Goldfield, a clinical psychologist and senior scientist with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity research group. “But that natural drop in mood that most tend to feel is magnified in a COVID environment.”

One way to combat this is to stay active. The Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines recommend that adults aged 18 to 64 should have at least 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity while participating in strength training twice a week. These guidelines also recommend minimizing sedentary time and breaking up long periods of sitting as often as possible. 

Studies have shown that people engage in less physical activity and more sedentary behaviour during colder months and the pandemic has exacerbated this trend since the normal indoor venues are closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

However, research has highlighted the benefits of outdoor physical activity on mental health. Green exercise, or exercising in nature, can help reduce stress, improve moods and boost dopamine levels.

“Running outside stimulates the brain differently than on a treadmill,” says Goldfield. “This is because of the fresh air, change of scenery, sunlight and vitamin D.”

Any increase in physical activity has been associated with better mental health. The monoamine hypothesis indicates that the amount of monoamines in the brain (norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin) is enhanced when exercising and generates an antidepressant effect. Researchers have observed an increase in serotonin synthesis and a release and increase in norepinephrine uptake in specific areas of the brain following exercise. These changes in monoamine levels in the brain help regulate mood and anxiety and improve energy and attentiveness.

Moreover, a potential psychological explanation of the benefits of physical activity on mental health is the distraction hypothesis, which suggests physical activity distracts the mind from unpleasant stimuli, stressors and painful somatic complaints, eventually leading to an improvement in mental health.

A recent study on the effects of COVID-19 restrictions on physical activity, sedentary time, mental health and their interrelations found that individuals who kept exercising while sheltering demonstrated higher mental resilience compared to those who were no longer active.

“For people who do not like physical activity, a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day could be helpful,” Goldfield suggests. “My attitude towards physical activity is that something is better than nothing.” 

So, grab your coat, put on your boots, go outside and embrace our winter weather! Remember the childhood joy of playing in the snow and building a snowman.

Your mental health will only thank you.

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Mohcene Abdessemed


Mohcene Abdessemed is a master’s candidate in Health Systems at the Telfer School of Management and a student researcher at the Healthy Active Living and Obesity group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

Sandra Blais-Amyot


Sandra Blais-Amyot is a master’s candidate in Health Systems at the Telfer School of Management.


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