More vigorous physical activity isn’t necessarily better than more moderate forms of physical activity when it comes to psychological well-being, according to research published in the Journal of Health Psychology.
The study of 419 healthy adults used wearable accelerometer devices along with a questionnaire to assess physical activity. Three more surveys were used to measure the participants’ psychological well-being, depression, pain severity, and the extent to which pain interferes with daily activities.
The researchers found that sedentary behavior was linked to lower levels of psychological well-being and higher levels of depression. Light-intensity physical activity, on the other hand, was associated with higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of depression, while moderate-intensity physical activity was associated with higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of pain severity. There appeared to be no relationship between high-intensity physical activity and psychological well-being, for better or worse.
PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Gregory A. Panza of Hartford Hospital and the University of Connecticut. Read his responses below:
PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?
Panza: It is well established that physical activity has a positive effect on subjective well-being (i.e., the positive and negative evaluations that people make of their lives). However results from current research studies aiming to identify which intensity (i.e., light, moderate, or vigorous) of exercise may be the most beneficial for a person’s subjective well-being are inconsistent. For example, some studies have found that people who reported participating in light intensity physical activity reported the highest levels of subjective well-being, while other studies have found that people who reported participating in moderate or vigorous intensity physical activity reported the highest levels of subjective well-being. One current study has even found that people who reported participating in vigorous intensity physical activity reported significantly lower levels of subjective well-being. The inconsistencies found in these studies could be due to a variety of reasons such as subjective measurements to assess physical activity intensity as well as failure to measure all domains of subjective well-being. These domains include life evaluation (reflective assessment of a person’s life), affect (a person’s feelings or emotional states), and eudaemonia (a sense of meaning and purpose, or good psychological functioning).
For these reasons, to the best of our knowledge, our study was the first to examine the relationship between physical activity intensity and subjective well-being using both subjective (i.e., a physical activity habit questionnaire) and objective (i.e., accelerometers) measurements of physical activity in a single cohort. We also used questionnaires to assess all three domains of subjective well-being.
What should the average person take away from your study?
Our results do confirm previous studies that report higher levels of sedentary behavior (i.e., being physically inactive) is associated with lower subjective well-being. However, different intensities of physical activity may be more beneficial for particular domains of subject well-being than others. For example, results from our objective measurement of physical activity (i.e., accelerometers) found that people who participated in more light intensity physical activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of depression. While people who participated in moderate intensity physical activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of pain severity. Accelerometers did not find any positive or negative relationships between vigorous intensity physical activity and subjective well-being. In other words, the ‘more is better’ attitude regarding exercise intensity may not be necessarily true for all domains of subjective well-being.
Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?
There are a few caveats to consider when interpreting the results of our study. First, subjective well-being was not the primary outcome of the larger National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study from which this sub-study derived and therefore there may be better questionnaires to use when assessing the three domains of subjective well-being. Second, we used a cross-sectional design, which means that all measurements were taken at a single time point. A longitudinal study design is considered stronger because it extends beyond a single time point, and can establish sequences of events leading to different relationships over time. Last, the people in our study had a relatively high level of well-being and physical activity levels, therefore our results cannot be generalized to clinical populations with low reported subjective well-being and/or levels of physical activity.
The relationship between physical activity intensity and subjective well-being needs further investigation in a longitudinal, randomized controlled trial design with people of varying levels of subjective well-being and physical activity. Future studies should also take into account all aspects of an exercise prescription which includes frequency (i.e., how often?), duration (i.e., how long?), and type (i.e., what kind?) of physical activity.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We believe a goal for researchers in this area should be to fully refine an exercise prescription for subjective well-being that can be used by clinicians when prescribing exercise for mental health.
The study, “Physical activity intensity and subjective well-being in healthy adults“, was also co-authored by Beth A. Taylor, Paul D. Thompson, C. Michael White, and Linda S. Pescatello.