The Relationship between Exercise and Mental Health Outcomes during the COVID-19 Pandemic: From the Perspective of Hope.
The unexpected outbreak of COVID-19 triggered fear and anxiety in the general population. Exercise was one of the most widely promoted methods to improve body function when socially restricted. This study aims to examine the role of exercise in relieving stressful mental health outcomes (anxiety and depressive symptoms) during the COVID-19 pandemic and explore the underlying mechanism from the perspective of hope, using a combination of goal-directed planning (pathways) and motivation (agency). A cross-sectional online survey recruiting 2390 Chinese participants was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic in China. A series of questions and scales, including the self-designed exercise questionnaire, the Adult Dispositional Hope Scale, the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale-7 and the Patient Health Questionnaire-9, were used to measure exercise, hope, anxiety symptoms and depressive symptoms, respectively. A structural equation model was constructed to test the hypothesis that exercise benefits mental health outcomes through the mediating role of hope. Our results showed that exercise relieved stressful mental health outcomes via three paths: one direct path (β = −0.077, 95% CI = (−0.138, −0.017), p < 0.01), one indirect path through hope of pathways thinking (β = −0.046, 95% CI = (−0.064, −0.027), p < 0.001) and another indirect path through hope of agency thinking (β = −0.060, 95% CI = (−0.081, −0.039), p < 0.001). Our results showed that exercise could alleviate stressful mental health outcomes by promoting both hope of pathway thinking and agency thinking. It provided practical insights into psychological prevention and intervention by means of exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic.