You don’t need to sweat at the gym in order to improve your mood, simply walking at a slow pace for a quarter of an hour can do the job, according to a new study.
Couch potatoes tend to be the least happy, but a new study suggests they don’t need intense physical activity to be happy, but a leisurely stroll may be enough to lift their spirits.
“We hope this research helps people realise the important public health message that simply going from doing no physical activity to performing some physical activity can improve their subjective well-being,” says lead author of the study Gregory Panza from University of Connecticut in the US.
“What is even more promising for the physically inactive person is that they do not need to exercise vigorously to see these improvements,” Panza says.
“Instead, our results indicate you will get the best ‘bang for your buck’ with light or moderate intensity physical activity,”
A number of previous studies have shown that physical activity can help improve psychological well-being; Panza and colleagues note that it is, however, unclear how the intensity of physical activity impacts subjective well-being, defined as a person’s own assessment of their lives.
The team decided to study this association further by following 419 healthy, middle-aged adults, who wore fitness trackers on their hips for four days. During that period, individuals answered questionnaires about exercise, mental well-being, depression and pain.
The researchers found that the individuals who were sedentary had the highest levels of depression and the lowest levels of subjective well-being, which indicates that lack of physical activity is harmful to psychological health.
Types of physical activity and their impact on psychological well-being
Overall, the team found that participants who engaged in physical exercise demonstrated greater subjective well-being, but these benefits varied by intensity.
For example, light-intensity activity was linked with higher psychological well-being and lower depression, while moderate-intensity activity was associated with higher psychological well-being and decreased pain severity.
The authors define light-intensity activity as a leisurely walk that does not noticeably raise heart rate, breathing, or sweating. Moderate-intensity activity was defined as walking 1 mile in 15 to 20 minutes, with a modest increase in breathing, heart rate, and sweating.
Remarkably, the findings showed that sedentary people who heightened their exercise levels to light or moderate activity displayed the greatest increases in subjective well-being.
On the other hand, vigorous-intensity activity – defined as jogging or briskly walking a mile in 13 minutes, causing noticeable increases in breathing, heart rate, and sweating – did not have any impact on subjective well-being. But, the researchers say that this is not necessarily a bad finding.
“Recent studies had suggested a slightly unsettling link between vigorous activity and subjective well-being,” says study co-author Beth Taylor, associate professor of kinesiology at UConn.
“We did not find this in the current study, which is reassuring to individuals who enjoy vigorous activity and may be worried about negative effects.”
While researchers say further studies are needed to better understand the link between exercise intensity and psychological health, the new findings indicate that we do not need to push too hard in order to boost our psychological health.
Panza and his team also point to some limitations of the study. For example, data collected, were from a single point in time, therefore, they weren’t able to state how physical activity might impact subjective well-being in the long-term.
The study was published in the Journal of Health Psychology.