Regular exercise is considered key for improving and maintaining physical health. When it comes to psychological health, however, new research suggests that you do not need to hit the gym in order to reap the rewards.
Researchers from the University of Connecticut (UConn) in Mansfield found that simply going for a leisurely walk can improve mood and boost subjective well-being, particularly for adults who are normally sedentary.
Lead study author Gregory Panza, of the Department of Kinesiology at UConn, and colleagues recently reported their findings in the Journal of Health Psychology.
While a number of studies have shown that physical activity can benefit psychological health, Panza and team note that it remains unclear how the intensity of physical activity impacts subjective well-being, defined as a person's own evaluation of their lives.
The researchers decided to investigate this association further with their new study, which included 419 healthy, middle-aged adults.
The physical activity of each adult was monitored over 4 days using accelerometers, which participants wore on their hips.
Additionally, subjects completed questionnaires detailing their daily exercise routines, psychological well-being, level of depression, whether they experienced pain and its severity, as well as the extent to which pain disrupted their day-to-day activities.
Light, moderate activity led to greatest improvements in well-being
The researchers found that adults who were sedentary had the lowest levels of subjective well-being and the highest levels of depression, which indicates that lack of physical activity is detrimental to psychological health.
Overall, the team found that people who engaged in physical activity demonstrated greater subjective well-being. However, the benefits of physical activity were found to vary by intensity.
Light-intensity activity, for example, was associated with greater psychological well-being and lower depression, while moderate-intensity activity was linked to higher psychological well-being and reduced pain severity.
Light-intensity activity was defined by the study as a leisurely walk that does not noticeably raise heart rate, breathing, or sweating. Moderate-intensity activity was defined as walking a mile in 15 to 20 minutes, with a slight increase in heart rate, breathing, and sweating.
Notably, the study results revealed that sedentary adults who increased their exercise levels to light or moderate activity demonstrated the greatest increases in subjective well-being.
However, vigorous-intensity activity - defined as jogging or briskly walking a mile in 13 minutes, with very noticeable increases in heart rate, breathing, and sweating - appeared to have no impact on subjective well-being. However, 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."
Exercise and well-being: An 'anything is better' attitude might be best
While further studies are required to gain a better understanding of how exercise intensity influences psychological health, the researchers say that their findings indicate that we might not need to push ourselves too hard at the gym in order to boost our well-being.
"The 'more is better' mindset may not be true when it comes to physical activity intensity and subjective well-being. In fact, an 'anything is better' attitude may be more appropriate if your goal is a higher level of subjective well-being.
We hope this research helps people realize the important public health message that simply going from doing no physical activity to performing some physical activity can improve their subjective well-being."
The researchers note that there are some limitations to their study. For example, data were collected from a single point in time, so the researchers are unable to say how physical activity might impact subjective well-being in the long-term.