On the trail of the “happiness effect” of everyday movement

Anyone who feels limp and without drive should better use the stairs instead of the lift. (Image: verbaska_studio / iStock)

It is well known that sport can significantly improve mood, but simple everyday activities such as climbing stairs also have a positive effect on mental health, a study now shows. It also shows which brain structures are involved in this effect. According to this, people can benefit particularly intensively from everyday physical activity, who, due to their neurological characteristics, are more prone to psychiatric diseases.

Rest is important – but it is well known that there is also too much of a good thing: Those who are excessively inactive often not only feel physically limp and lacking energy, but also mentally depressed – depressive states can develop. Due to the corona restrictions and the cloudy weather, this problem is currently of particular relevance. Many people can confirm from their own experience that physical activity increases well-being, and scientific studies have already proven this effect. But so far the focus has mainly been on targeted training. How everyday physical activity such as climbing stairs, shopping or going for a walk affects personal wellbeing, however, has so far been little researched. It is also unclear which brain structures are involved in the effects of insufficient or increased activity on mental health.

More alert and energetic

A research team headed by the Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim (ZI) has now devoted itself to researching this topic. “The investigations were made possible by a novel combination of different research methods in everyday life and in the laboratory,” says co-author Ulrich Ebner from the ZI. In order to track down the effects of the activities that make up the largest part of our daily movement, the scientists initially equipped 67 volunteers with movement sensors over a period of one week. These devices were triggered based on geolocation data as soon as the study participants moved.

In addition, they were asked about their health at various times using a special smartphone app. They were asked to indicate how they assessed their own level of alertness and energy and provide information about their mental state. Thanks to this detection system, the scientists were now able to clearly show that everyday activities also have an effect. According to the analysis of the data, the test subjects felt significantly more alert and energetic after climbing stairs. This sensation was in turn linked to important components of the well-being and mental health of the study participants, the researchers report.

Relevant brain area identified

In the second part of their study, the scientists investigated which areas in the brain play a role in this process. To do this, they repeated the investigation of the relationship between everyday activity and well-being in 83 other test subjects. However, the personal characteristics of the brain structures of them were known from scans using magnetic resonance imaging. In the combined evaluations of the data it became clear that the so-called subgenual part of the anterior cingulate cortex is important for the interaction between everyday movement and affective well-being.

This brain region is already known to play a role in the regulation of emotions and resistance to psychiatric illnesses: Anyone who has a comparatively low volume of gray brain matter in this region is more likely to develop psychiatric illnesses. As the researchers explain, a role for this region of the brain in the connection between physical activity and subjective energy loading is emerging: “People who had a lower volume of gray brain matter in this region felt less energetic on the one hand when they were physically inactive. On the other hand, they felt much more energetic than people with a larger brain volume, even after everyday movement, ”says co-author Heike Tost from the ZI, summing up the results of the evaluations. Her colleague Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg adds: “The results thus point to a specific benefit of physical activity in everyday life for well-being – especially for people who are prone to psychiatric illnesses,” said the scientist.

The study results now also provide starting points for further research to co-author Urs Braun from the University of Pennsylvania: “In the long term, studies need to clarify whether everyday movement can causally change well-being and brain volume and to what extent these results could help psychiatric diseases to avoid and to treat, ”says Braun. It may also be worthwhile to use an app installed on the smartphone, which is intended to stimulate users to exercise when the energy drops in order to increase their well-being. “We are currently suffering from severe restrictions in public life and our social contacts, which can affect our well-being. In order to feel a little better, it can obviously help to climb stairs more often, ”says Tost in conclusion.

Source: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, specialist article: Science Advances, 2020. doi: 10.1126 / sciadv.aaz8934

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