Physical activity, whether or not it’s exercise, makes you happier

It’s a well-known fact that exercising has a trove of health advantages and does wonder for both your body and mind, but now researchers have found that physical activity, whether or not it’s a proper exercise, will make you happier.

Something as simple as playing football with your friends or just walking outside could make you happier. Image credits: Saifulmulia / Pixabay.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK have published results based on smartphone reports from more than 10,000 individuals. The study also details how large data sets can be acquired from smartphones. What they did is they used data from a mood tracking Android app, finding that even modest levels of physical activity improve people’s mood – regardless of their happiness baseline.

“Our data show that happy people are more active in general,” said the paper’s senior author Dr Jason Rentfrow, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College. “However, our analyses also indicated that periods of physical activity led to increased positive mood, regardless of individuals’ baseline happiness. There have been many studies about the positive psychological effects of exercise, but what we’ve found is that in order to be happier, you don’t have to go out and run a marathon – all you’ve really got to do is periodically engage in slight physical activity throughout the day.”

When this type of study is usually conducted, researchers use much smaller samples and data sets and generally rely on participants’ recollection of the moment. This type, they could see the data as it happened, sort of “in real time” and the sample size was much higher. This is particularly useful because we don’t really keep track of how active we were during a particular day. Our recollections are most often incomplete.

“Most of us don’t keep track of all of our movements during the day,” said study co-author Dr Gillian Sandstrom from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex. “A person might track whether they went for a walk or went to the gym, but when asked, most of them probably wouldn’t remember walking from the desk to the photocopier, or from the car to the office door.”

Figure 1. Lathia et al, 2017.

Figure 1. Lathia et al, 2017.

Users reported their emotional state on a grid, based on how positive or negative, and how energetic or sleepy, they were feeling. This wouldn’t have been possible without the smartphone data, and it shows just how useful this kind of data can actually be.

“This study shows how mobile and wearable technology really can allow social psychologists to perform large longitudinal studies as well as open a direct and permanent connection with the users for advice and intervention,” said study co-author Professor Cecilia Mascolo from Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory.

Journal Reference: Lathia, N. Sandstrom, G.M., Mascolo, C., & Rentfrow, P.J. ‘Happier people live more active lives: Using smartphones to link happiness and physical activity.’ PLOS ONE (2016).

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