It Really Doesn’t Take Much Exercise to Help Improve Mood

Research has shown that it’s not necessary to work out hours every day to improve mood and feel happier about yourself. Just by engaging in some physical activity from no physical activity can help improve subjective well-being.[1]

If you are a physically inactive person leading a sedentary lifestyle, you can reduce risk of depression and improve mood just by getting out of your chair and moving around. And the good news for physically inactive people is that they don’t have to exercise vigorously to improve mood. Rather, the study suggests the best results can be had with physical activity that’s light or moderately intense. The results were neutral when it came to vigorous activity, which is also good news for individuals who prefer intense workouts, as it doesn’t support other research which suggested that high intensity physical activities reduce sense of well-being.

As an indication, light physical activity is equal to going for a leisurely walk in the park without any noticeable increase in sweating, heart rate, or breathing. Activity of moderate intensity is equal to a 15-20-minute mile walk accompanied by an increase in sweating, heart rate, and breathing, but still being able to converse. Vigorous activity is equal to a 13-minute mile jog or very brisk walk with an evident increase in sweating, heart rate, and breathing to the point of not being able to converse.

Study participants consisted of 419 middle-aged adults who were generally healthy that tracked their physical activity over 4 days with hip accelerometers. They were also asked in a series of questionnaires to describe their level of depression, psychological well-being, daily exercise habits, pain severity, and to what extent pain interfered with their day to day activities.

Key findings:

  • A higher level of sedentary lifestyle correlated with a lower level of subjective well-being, which means individuals sitting around a lot were the unhappiest. Subjective well-being is defined as the negative and positive evaluations individuals make of their own lives.
  • Physical activity general improved people’s sense of well-being. Different intensities of physical activities were however more beneficial to some individuals compared to others. For example, individuals who took part in light-intensity activities noted higher psychological well-being levels and lower depression levels. Individuals who took part in moderate-intensity activities noted higher psychological well-being levels and lower pain severity levels.
  • Individuals with sedentary lifestyles and engaging in light or moderate physical activity experienced the best overall sense of well-being improvement. The approach of ‘more is better’ is probably not true in terms of intensity of physical activity and subjective well-being. Actually, an ‘anything is better’ approach is probably more appropriate for improving levels of subjective well-being.
  • Although light to moderate physical activity definitely made some individuals feel happier about themselves, the outcomes were neutral when it came to vigorous activity. There wasn’t any negative or positive connection found between high intensity activities and subjective well-being. Other research has suggested an inverse association between vigorous activities and subjective well-being.

Although this study used both subjective (questionnaires) and objective (accelerometers) measurements in a single group for examining the association between intensity of physical activity and well-being, the questionnaire answers need to take into account that all study participants were generally physically active with a positive sense of well-being prior to the study.

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