Physical Activity Tentatively Linked to Positive Mental Health in New Study

Exercise’s notable effect on reducing negative mental health problems should be more widely known, but this new study tries to examine whether there’s a similarity between exercise’s effects on negative and positive mental health. Scientifically, even walking produces endorphins, which lends credence to the phrase “Walk it off” after experiencing a painful physical sensation.

Physical activity has long been known to reduce depression and anxiety, and is commonly prescribed to prevent or cure negative mental health conditions.

However, less is known about the impact of physical activity on positive mental health conditions, such as happiness and contentment.

Weiyun Chen, University of Michigan associate professor in kinesiology, wanted to know if exercise increased positive mental health in the same way it reduced negative mental health. Specifically, researchers examined which aspects of physical activity were associated with happiness, and which populations were likely to benefit from the effects.

To that end, Chen and co-author Zhanjia Zhang, a doctoral student, reviewed 23 studies on happiness and physical activity. The 15 observational studies all showed a positive direct or indirect association between happiness and exercise. The eight interventional studies showed inconsistent results.

The studies included health information from thousands of adults, seniors, adolescents, children, and cancer survivors from several countries. A couple themes emerged.

“Our findings suggest the physical activity frequency and volume are essential factors in the relationship between physical activity and happiness,” Chen said. “More importantly, even a small change of physical activity makes a difference in happiness.”

Findings suggest a threshold effect for the relationship of happiness and physical activity — several studies found that happiness levels were the same whether people exercised 150-300 minutes a week, or more than 300 minutes a week.

Specifics: Active and happy?

The review of observational studies found that compared to inactive people, the odds ratio of being happy was 20, 29 and 52 percent higher for people who were insufficiently active, sufficiently active, or very active, respectively.

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More details can be found in the study, “A systematic review of the relationship between physical activity and happiness,” which was published online March 24 by the Journal of Happiness Studies.