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To Get Happy, a Little Movement Goes a Long Way

by Katie Moritz
May 25, 2017 | Health

A lot of us have a goal to be more active, but, for some people, starting an exercise regimen can be intimidating. Going to the gym and running in public can be uncomfortable for a lot of folks. Not everyone grew up exercising and playing sports. When you don't know where to start, it can be tempting to keep putting it off.

But this is encouraging: If you're simply looking to feel better through exercise, you don't need to do much to reap the benefits.

A study of 419 healthy adults by the University of Connecticut and Hartford Hospital showed that if you're not currently doing any exercise, adding in just a little bit can seriously improve how you perceive your own well-being.

Little Movement pbs rewire

"What is even more promising for the physically inactive person is that they do not need to exercise vigorously to see these improvements," UConn researcher Gregory Panza said to the university. "Instead, our results indicate you will get the best 'bang for your buck' with light- or moderate-intensity physical activity."

An example of light physical activity would be taking a leisurely walk with no noticeable change in breathing, heart rate or sweating, according to Linda Pescatello, UConn professor of kinesiology and senior researcher on the study. A moderate-intensity exercise would be walking a 15- to 20-minute mile with an increase in breathing, heart rate and sweating but being able to hold a conversation at the same time.

Different activities for different needs

If you're training for a marathon you're going to exercise differently than if you're trying to bulk up. The same goes for feelings of mental and physical health—different levels of exercise provide different results.

Researchers found that people who did light activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of depression, while those doing moderate activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and less physical pain.

People who went from no activity to light or moderate activity reaped the most benefits. Those folks reported being the least happy to begin with. They showed the greatest improvement in their senses of personal well-being through a little movement.

“The ‘more is better’ mindset may not be true when it comes to physical activity intensity and subjective well-being,” Panza said. “In fact, an ‘anything is better’ attitude may be more appropriate if your goal is a higher level of subjective well-being.”

Lots of different studies have been done on the best exercise regimen to boost happiness and sense of well-being, and they don't all come to the same conclusion, the researchers said. The differences might lie in how well-being and activity were measured from study to study.

What about people who like to go hard?

If working up a serious sweat is what puts you in your happy place, don't worry—there doesn't seem to be anything detrimental about hard exercise on subjective well-being. Researchers found that heavy exercise had a neutral effect on participants' happiness and feelings of health.

Little Movement pbs rewire

That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but the UConn researchers said it actually represents good news for exercise lovers. It runs counter to the findings of a recent study that reported intense, calorie-burning workouts lowered some people's sense of well-being.

“Recent studies had suggested a slightly unsettling link between vigorous activity and subjective well-being,” said Beth Taylor, associate professor of kinesiology at UConn and a member of the research team. “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.”

If you're like 62 percent of U.S. workers, you use the internet at work, probably while sitting down. Here's how to be healthy even when you're not moving.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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