Does an Active Lifestyle Actually Make You Happier?

How Every Kind of Physical Activity Can Improve Your Mood

Happy Hiker
MichaelSvoboda/Getty Images

You've probably heard of the runner's high, but could you boost your mood and feel happier by simply getting up and moving around more? There's good news from a research study that linked happiness with not only exercise but also non-exercise physical activity, such as standing and walking around the house or office. You may not have to break a sweat to enjoy the psychological benefits of physical activity.

App Reveals How Simple Physical Movement Affects Happiness

Researchers enlisted 10,000 people to use a free mobile phone app and provide data on measures of happiness throughout the day. They were able to capture their physical activity throughout the day by the movement data automatically captured by their smartphones. The study continued for over a year.

Their study found that how often people move around physically during the day, whether or not it is during rigorous exercise, was associated with both being healthier and happier. This can be a good reason to develop the habit of breaking up long periods of sitting with a few minutes of walking rather than waiting until you can hit the gym. In addition to reducing the health risks of sitting, these bouts of physical activity may improve your mood.

Your Phone Knows the Truth About How Physically Active You Are

How do you know how much non-exercise activity you get throughout the day?

It's something researchers couldn't easily capture in past years. They would have to enlist test subjects to wear a pedometer or accelerometer. But now most people carry their smartphone everywhere they go, and those phones include an accelerometer sensor. Your mobile phone knows when you stand up and move around.

You can view your steps and activity throughout the day on a variety of pedometer apps.

Now, researchers can easily know how much a volunteer test subject is moving around during the day, including whether they are moving fast enough to rate it as exercise or whether it is lower-intensity physical activity.

The study used self-reports of what people were doing when prompted during the day as well as the data their phone automatically captures. In this way, researchers could see how physically active each person was in the 15 minutes before they reported their mood.

Can Simply Being Active Boost Your Mood?

The app prompted users to report their mood twice per day at random moments that were at least two hours apart. The researchers found that people were happier when they reported that they were exercising, which was a result also found in previous studies. But the test subjects also reported being happier when the app sensed they had been active.

The researchers found that whether people reported their activity themselves or it was objectively measured by the phone and app, they were more likely to be happier when they were physically active. By using the app, the researchers were able to get reports of mood at random points during the day.

The users also answered surveys about overall mood and life satisfaction covering a longer time frame.

Which Comes First—Physical Activity or Happiness?

An alternative interpretation would be that happier people tend to be more physically active. That sets up a chicken or egg question. This study didn't encourage people to be more physically active to see if that improved their mood. Instead, the subjects simply monitored their mood over time.

All this study can say is that people tended to be happier if they had been more physically active. You might want to experiment on yourself to see whether increasing your physical activity really will improve your mood.

Boosting Your Mood With a Variety of Types of Physical Activity

You may be thinking that the people you see grunting on the treadmill at the gym don't seem to be very happy at that moment. Perhaps it only feels good when they stop? The upshot of this study is that you don't necessarily have to do a type of physical activity you dislike. There are a wide variety of choices. Some of them involve sweat or need athletic skill, but others that don't. You can find activities you can do solo, with friends, or even as part of organized sports.

  • Moderate-Intensity Physical Activity: The researchers noted a previous study that found that 10 minutes of exercise at 60 percent of maximum exertion was enough to improve mood. That is a moderate-intensity level seen by brisk walking, and most people would consider themselves to be exercising rather than just moving around. It's pretty easy to take a brisk walk during your break or lunch time. Other moderate-intensity activities include dancing, water aerobics, using an elliptical trainer, and even gardening. Team sports would include softball and volleyball.
  • Vigorous-Intensity Physical Activity: Exercise that makes you breathe hard, such as running, can be effective in releasing chemicals in the brain to give you a boost. There are many activities that can get your heart pumping. Besides running, cycling, and swimming, you can play sports such as singles tennis, soccer, or basketball, or enjoy martial arts. You may be able to find one you love.
  • Outdoor Walking and Other Physical Activities in Natural Settings: There may also be greater benefits for mood by taking a walk outdoors in a natural environment, as seen in a review of studies. Walking, running, or cycling in a park or through a forested area is a good change of scenery from the gym or urban streets. You may hate the treadmill but discover you love strolling or cycling through nature.
  • Non-Exercise Activity - Getting 10,000 Steps Throughout the Day: This study shows that there may be mood benefits simply by being more active throughout the day, such as when you wear a pedometer or fitness band and aim for a goal 10,000 steps per day. Whether you are taking a sustained walk or sneaking in a few minutes of activity every hour, it's all good.

Don't discount any of these forms of physical activity for improving your mood. Find the one you enjoy the most, or dislike the least, and get started. You may find the key to happiness by moving more in the way you enjoy the most.

Sources:

Coon JT, Boddy K, Stein K, Whear R, Barton J, Depledge M. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2011;65(Suppl 2):A38–A38. doi:10.1136/jech.2011.143586.85.

Hansen C, Stevens L, Coast J. Exercise duration and mood state: how much is enough to feel better? Health Psychol. 2001; 20. 267. pmid:11515738

Lathia N, Sandstrom GM, Mascolo C, Rentfrow PJ. Happier people live more active lives: Using Smartphones to link happiness and physical activity. PLOS ONE. 2017;12(1):e0160589. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0160589.

Continue Reading