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.

Research: Everyday Exercise Has Surprisingly Positive Health Benefits

It should be obvious to more people than it is, and it extends beyond the scope of the study.

The benefits of low-intensity physical activity, such as standing, walking or doing household chores, can be more health beneficial than once thought. According to a study from Karolinska Institutet published in the journal Clinical Epidemiology, replacing half an hour’s sedentariness a day with everyday activity reduces the risk of fatal cardiovascular disease by 24 per cent.

Cardiovascular diseases are the primary cause of death in Sweden, and while it is known that moderate to intense physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, the benefits of low-intensity activity have yet to be agreed upon.

For the present study, the researchers analysed how different levels of physical activity in 1,200 people across Sweden affected the mortality rate due to cardiovascular disease (amongst other causes) 15 years later. Data were gathered from the ABC (Attitude, Behaviour and Change) study, in which the activity level of the participants is measured using motion trackers, and compared them with data on deaths and causes of death from Swedish registries.

“This is a unique study, since we’ve been able to analyse a large number of people with objective measures of physical activity for up to 15 years,” says study leader Maria Hagströmer, senior lecturer at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society. “Previous studies asked participants about levels of physical activity, but this can lead to reporting error since it’s hard to remember exactly for how long one has been sitting and moving around.”

The study shows that there are considerable health benefits to be gained not only from moderate or intense physical activity but also from low-intensity (everyday) activity. Replacing half an hour’s sedentariness a day with such low-level activity can reduce the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by an estimated 24 per cent.

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“In an earlier study, we also showed that people who sit still for more than 10 hours a day have a 2.5 times higher risk of early death than people who sit for less than 6.5 hours a day,” says first author Ing-Mari Dohrn, postdoc at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society.