Harvard Study Reports: Happier Adults May Exercise More

Researchers find a link between psychological well-being and physical activity.

Posted Dec 05, 2016

 Yayayoyo/Shutterstock
Source: Yayayoyo/Shutterstock

A new longitudinal study from Harvard University reports that adults over 50 with psychological well-being (as marked by positive emotions and optimism) were more likely to be physically active over the course of an 11-year study. The December 2016 report was published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine

Over a century ago, William James wisely noted, "We don't laugh because we're happy, we're happy because we laugh." Similarly, many researchers have long believed, "We don't exercise because we're happy, we're happy because we exercise." But the latest research suggests that people who have a happier and more optimistic disposition are more likely to exercise regularly.

The Harvard researchers seem to have identified a synergistic feedback loop between psychological well-being and physical activity that may be bidirectional. But the million-dollar "chicken or the egg" question remains: Does being physically active make someone more likely to self-report higher positive emotions or does having positive emotions make someone more likely to exercise? 

Most likely, positive emotions and physical activity go hand-in-hand and work in tandem to create a bidirectional feedback loop and upward spiral in which each element is perpetually fueling the other. However, the new research from Harvard does suggest that positive psychological states—in and of themselves—may create an impetus for people to be more physically active. 

Notably, the Harvard researchers found that study participants who had the highest levels of psychological well-being above baseline (and were also exercising regularly at the beginning of the study 11 years ago) were the least likely to become inactive over the subsequent decade. 

Exercise Creates an Upward Spiral of Healthy Behaviors and Positive Emotions

During the 11-year study, participants were asked about the frequency and intensity of their physical activity both at work and during leisure time. Then, the researchers classified participants into four categories: sedentary activity, low activity, moderate activity, and high activity. The researchers concluded that those with higher psychological well-being at the start of the study displayed greater levels of physical activity more than a decade later.

For this groundbreaking study, the team of researchers at Harvard collaborated with lead author Julia Boehm currently of Chapman University, who began work on this research as a fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. In a statement, Boehm described the research:

"Researchers have long studied how physical activity can lead to improved mood and feelings of well-being, however, less well understood is whether being happy and optimistic might actually encourage a person to be physically active.

What we wanted to do in this study was to assess psychological well-being before assessing physical activity to determine if happier adults are more likely to exercise than their less happy peers.

Results from this study suggest that higher levels of psychological well-being may precede increased physical activity; therefore, it is possible that psychological well-being could be a novel way of not only enhancing psychological health but also increasing physical activity—which in turn could improve the physical health of a large segment of people in an aging society."

The new report from Boehm et al. corroborates research from last year linking positive emotions with increased healthy behaviors, including regular exercise. In 2015, researchers at Penn State reported that people who displayed higher positive psychological states were more likely to be physically active. 

For this study, the Penn State researchers assessed the psychological well-being of 1,000 participants at baseline and again five years later. Researchers asked each participant to rate the extent to which he or she experienced 10 specific positive emotions that included being "interested," "proud," "enthusiastic," "inspired," etc. Across the board, those who self-assessed higher rates of positive emotions were also more likely to maintain healthier lifestyle behaviors over a five-year period.

In a statement to Penn State, lead author Nancy L. Sin, described her findings: 

"Negative emotions and depression are known to have harmful effects on health, but it is less clear how positive emotions might be health-protective. We found that positive emotions are associated with a range of long-term health habits, which are important for reducing the risk of future heart problems and death. Higher levels of positive emotions were associated with less smoking, greater physical activity, better sleep quality and more adherence to medications at baseline."

Anecdotally, we all know from life experience that being in a psychological funk or feeling melancholy saps your energy. Pessimism takes the wind out of your sails. And can make even the smallest amounts of physical exertion seem Herculean in effort. 

Oftentimes, making a conscious effort to have a more optimistic attitude and see the glass as half-full is within the locus of your control. That being said, it's important to note that in cases of clinical depression—which go far beyond a simple attitude adjustment to your explanatory style—it's always beneficial to reach out and ask for professional help.

Want to Exercise More? Take a Dual-Pronged Approach of Focusing on Increased Positive Emotions and Small Amounts of Moderate-to-Vigorous Physical Activity

The ancient Greeks understood the feedback loop of maintaining a sound mind in a sound body as summed up in the timeless wisdom of mens sana in corpore sano. In recent decades, modern science has reaffirmed that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is a fundamental aspect of preserving your physical and psychological well-being across a lifespan. 

Although the correlation between positive emotions and healthy behaviors is evident, in terms of causation, it's impossible to know for certain which comes first. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter. By taking a dual-pronged approach of simultaneously deciding to exercise a bit more while making a conscious effort to see the glass as half-full through "pragmatic optimism" most of us can create an upward spiral of psychological and physical well-being

Once the synergistic and bidirectional feedback loop of positive emotions and physical activated gains momentum, someone who exercises regularly will feel an increase in psychological well-being. According to the latest research, this uptick in positive emotions could give you the joie de vivre to continue staying physically active the following day, and the day after that, and so on.

Hopefully, these findings will inspire you to be proactive about improving your psychological well-being as a way to help maintain healthier lifestyle habits and regular physical activity for decades to come. 

References

Eric S. Kim, Laura D. Kubzansky, Jackie Soo, Julia K. Boehm. Maintaining Healthy Behavior: a Prospective Study of Psychological Well-Being and Physical Activity. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s12160-016-9856-y

Nancy L. Sin, Judith Tedlie Moskowitz, Mary A. Whooley. Positive Affect and Health Behaviors Across 5 Years in Patients With Coronary Heart Disease. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000238

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