VANCOUVER -- Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria are studying the effects of exercise programs on seniors forced to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they're looking for more participants.

The study - known as the Seniors COVID-19 Pandemic and Exercise, or SCOPE, Trial - splits participants into three groups. One group will participate in at least three online group exercise classes per week. Another will complete the same workouts, but on their own time and without a live instructor or other participants. The third group will serve as a control group, not participating in any of the exercise classes until after the 12-week trial is complete.

The goal is to determine whether participating in the exercise classes has a positive impact on the mental health of seniors who are staying at home because of the coronavirus, said Mark Beauchamp, a professor of exercise and health psychology at UBC and the lead researcher on the project.

Beauchamp said the isolation necessitated by the pandemic has been difficult on people's mental health, and that seniors have been hit particularly hard.

"Even as things start to open up, we're still hearing a certain level of anxiety, especially among older adults," he said.

The study builds on existing research showing that physical activity can help with mental health, Beauchamp said, adding that researchers hope to determine whether the group programs, which officer the opportunity for participants to socialize after their workouts, improve this effect.

"We know from some of our previous work that some of the opportunities to connect right after the classes are really, really salient," he said.

At the same time, however, Beauchamp said it's "an open question" whether participating in group exercise classes online will be measurably better for a person's mental and physical health than doing the same workout routines on one's own. The latter approach offers a flexibility that online classes do not, the researcher noted.

"It may be that some degree of choice actually drives improvements in these outcomes, but also there's some evidence that points to the fact that social connectivity is an important driver," Beauchamp said.

Exercise classes for the study began Wednesday morning, with participants joining live from across Canada.

That said, more participants are welcome, Beauchamp said. The study is open to anyone over 65 with an internet connection and a device from which to join the classes, he said. More information on how to join the trial can be found on the study's website.

Beauchamp said the researchers plan to disseminate their findings as quickly as possible in the hope that they will be of use to both fellow scientists and to people who work with seniors.

"We're running this as a 12-week trial, so by the fall we'd have the findings from this in terms of understanding what types of programs are best able to support older adults in terms of - especially - their mental health, but also physical health as well," he said.

That could prove especially useful if there is a second wave of COVID-19 this winter, Beauchamp said.