A variety in daily movements is linked to better well-being, according to a small new study of psychiatric patients, a finding that may help explain why pandemic blocks have been difficult for many of us.
Staying active during a global pandemic has been quite difficult, especially when many people are afraid to even go outside. Some have started exercising at home, and yet in a normal world, spontaneous outings are important health factors that we tend to underestimate.
When most of us think of activities that stimulate the mind, we imagine deliberate and strenuous exercise, such as jogging, biking, or swimming, but it seems that just visiting a variety of different places is associated with a greater sense of well-being in people. with depression or anxiety.
A recently published study by researchers at the University Psychiatric Clinics in Basel, Switzerland, found that the more varied places people visit, the better they feel about their emotional and psychological well-being, even if their mental health symptoms still persist.
The study was conducted before the pandemic and looked at 106 patients with mental health problems, including affective disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Some were inpatients and others were outpatients, living at home but seeking regular care in medical institutions.
For a week, these patients carried an additional phone with them to track their movements with GPS. They also completed several surveys on their subjective well-being, their psychological flexibility, and their mental health symptoms.
Comparing the GPS maps with the results of these surveys, the authors found that greater movement in space and time appeared to coincide with a greater sense of well-being, although symptoms of mental health problems remained largely the same. themselves.
Outpatients spent nearly a third of their day at home, but understandably showed considerably more movement than inpatients, who spent most of their time inside the hospital.
Unsurprisingly, patients with phobias or anxieties about leaving safe spaces were strongly linked to much lower mobility and a much smaller area of activity. However, no other symptoms of mental health problems seemed to have the same effect on a patient’s daily movements.
In contrast, higher levels of emotional well-being and, to a lesser extent, psychological flexibility were consistently associated with more movement and a greater variety of movements.
“Our results suggest that activity alone is not sufficient to reduce symptoms of mental disorders, but it can at least improve subjective well-being,” explains clinical and health psychologist Andrew Gloster of the University of Basel.
The findings add to a limited body of research on the effects of daily activities among people with mental health problems. In fact, this is one of the first studies to use GPS tracking as a measure of spontaneous movement.
Obviously, in the real world, this data could be seen as a violation of patient privacy, but in a study setting, it allows researchers to examine the effects of simple activities that are often overlooked.
Physical activity has been shown to substantially improve mental health and well-being, but most research on this topic has so far focused on deliberate exercise. Today, it is unclear how spontaneous movement in daily life affects patients seeking mental health treatment.
Last year, a small study of 67 participants found that everyday activities, such as walking to the tram stop or climbing a flight of stairs, made people feel more alert and energetic.
More MRI scans of the participants’ brains showed that those who felt more energetic after movement had a greater volume of brain gray matter in the subgenual cingulate cortex, a part of the brain associated with emotional regulation.
Discovering how to apply this knowledge to prevent and treat mental health problems is a different matter entirely, but simple movements can be a harmless place to start.
“Currently, we are experiencing severe restrictions on public life and social contacts, which can negatively affect our well-being,” said neuroscientist Heike Tost in November 2020.
“To feel better, climbing stairs more often can help.”
Just getting outside can help, too. Physical activity in nature as a child has been linked to better mental health outcomes in adulthood, and doctors in some parts of the world have begun to ‘prescribe’ time in nature as a boost to mental and physical health .
The new GPS study is small and limited, but the findings suggest that movement may be a predictor of how well patients with mental health problems are coping overall.
“The results point to the fact that movement patterns (eg, distance, number of destinations, variability of destinations, etc.) can serve as a marker of functioning and well-being,” the authors of the new study conclude.
Much more research needs to be done to confirm and expand on these findings, but the authors suggest that the use of GPS could be a non-intrusive way to better examine simple daily activity and its effect on mental health and well-being.
The study was published in BMC Psychiatry.