What is the optimal dose and intensity of physical activity to improve psychological and physical well-being? For many experts, this remains the million-dollar question. There is an ongoing debate about how vigorously someone needs to work out to improve feelings of subjective well-being. Unfortunately, there still isn’t a clear consensus amongst experts. Some studies say moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is best, while others say low-intensity exercise may be better.
That being said, for anyone who hates to exercise, there is good news. The latest research from the University of Connecticut reports that very small doses of low-intensity exercise—such as taking a leisurely walk—can improve your mood and make you feel better about yourself. ("Subjective well-being" assessments are based on the positive and negative evaluations that someone makes about his or her own life.)
The recent UConn study, “Physical Activity Intensity and Subjective Well-Being in Healthy Adults,” was published in the Journal of Health Psychology. The main takeaway from this study is that higher levels of sedentary behavior (sedentarism) are associated with lower subjective well-being and increased depression. The study also provides some actionable advice: If you spend most of your day sitting, simply getting up from your chair and moving around a little bit can boost your spirits and reduce depression.
In a statement, lead author, Gregory Panza, a graduate student in UConn's Department of Kinesiology, said, “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 . . . Our results indicate you will get the best 'bang for your buck' with light or moderate intensity physical activity."
Panza and colleagues examined the relationship between varying degrees of exercise duration and intensity among 419 healthy adults over four days using objective physical activity technology and subjective well-being assessments. The researchers said this study is the first of its kind to use both objective (accelerometers) and subjective (questionnaires) which asked participants to describe their daily exercise habits, overall psychological well-being, depression level, pain severity, and the extent to which pain interfered with their daily activities.
Varying degrees of physical activity intensity appeared to provide an interesting combination of psychological and analgesic benefits. For example, light-intensity physical activity was associated with improved psychological well-being and reduced symptoms of depression. Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was associated with better overall psychological well-being but also appeared to have a pain-relieving effect.
Regarding everyday markers for varying degrees of aerobic intensity, Linda Pescatello, who was the senior author of this study, describes light intensity physical activity as the equivalent of taking a leisurely walk around the mall without any noticeable increase in breathing, heart rate or breaking a sweat.
Moderate intensity activity would be the equivalent of walking a 15-20-minute mile with an increase in heart rate and breathing while possibly breaking a sweat, but still being able to carry on a conversation. Vigorous activity is the equivalent of a very brisk walk or jogging a 13-minute mile accompanied by a significant increase in heart rate, sweating, and deep breathing. Regarding the "talk test," it's very difficult to maintain a long-winded conversation during vigorous exercise.
As I mentioned earlier, study participants with the highest degree of sedentary behavior reported lower levels of subjective well-being and higher rates of depression. However, there are two caveats to consider before drawing any firm conclusions based on this finding.
First, this study was cross-sectional and only took a ‘snapshot’ of 4 days in each study participant's life. As Panza explains, “A longitudinal study that tracks people's feelings and physical activity over time would go a long way toward helping determine what exercise regimen might be best for different populations."
Second, correlation does not mean causation. In a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, it’s impossible to know if participants who were clinically depressed (and more likely to suffer from physical inertia) also tended to be more sedentary, or if sedentarism in and of itself exacerbates someone's risk of depression. Most likely, this feedback loop is bi-directional. Therefore, if someone with depression can find a kernel of inspiration (such as the empirical evidence in this new study!) it can spark the motivation to begin moving more...which the research shows could create an upward spiral of lifting your spirits and reducing depression.
On the bright side, the UConn researchers conclude that people who had led sedentary lives and then engaged in light or moderate physical activity showed the greatest improvement in their overall sense of well-being and less depression.
As the Freudian “Pleasure Principle” reminds us, "All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain." If exercise is viewed as a disagreeable or “painful” experience, odds are that you will avoid this behavior. Panza and Pescatello agree that it's important to find a physical activity that you enjoy and then to exercise at a “tonic level” of intensity that makes you feel good. This level of intensity could change from day to day or at various stages of your life.
"The 'more is better' mindset may not be true when it comes to physical activity intensity and subjective well-being," Panza concluded. "In fact, an 'anything is better' attitude may be more appropriate if your goal is a higher level of subjective well-being." I agree wholeheartedly with Panza’s advice. In fact, on p. 47 of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, I write:
“Do something…do anything! Remember to take it slow. You don’t have to kill yourself—getting the blood moving should be your goal. A small time commitment will reap huge benefits. As little as twenty to thirty minutes most days of the week is all you need to see results. That’s less than 3 percent of your waking day, and you’ll feel better for the other 97 percent.”
Hopefully, the latest findings by Gregory Panza and colleagues will motivate you to keep doing what you’re doing—if low-intensity physical activity (or something more intense that makes you feel good) is part of your daily routine. Conversely, if you currently spend most of the day sitting—the latest research suggests that making a small commitment to move slightly more at an easy level of intensity could boost your mood, reduce depression, and improve your overall subjective well-being.
Gregory A Panza, Beth A Taylor, Paul D Thompson, C Michael White, Linda S Pescatello. Physical activity intensity and subjective well-being in healthy adults. Journal of Health Psychology, 2017; 135910531769158 DOI: 10.1177/1359105317691589
Pamela Wicker et al. The relationship between intensity and duration of physical activity and subjective well-being, The European Journal of Public Health (2015). DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckv131