(ORDO NEWS) — Variety in daily movements is associated with better well-being, according to a small study of psychiatric patients published in 2021.
Staying active during the global pandemic has been quite difficult, especially when many people were afraid to even go outside. Some exercised at home, but in the normal world, spontaneous walks are an important health factor that we tend to underestimate.
When most of us think of activities that increase mental alertness, we think of purposeful and strenuous exercise, such as jogging, biking, or swimming, but simply visiting different places seems to be associated with higher levels of well-being in people with depression or anxiety.
A study published last year by researchers at the University Psychiatric Hospital in Basel, Switzerland found that the more diverse places people visit, the better they feel about their emotional and psychological well-being – even if mental health symptoms are still present.
The study was conducted before the start of the pandemic and included 106 patients with psychiatric disorders, including affective disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Some of them were on inpatient treatment in hospitals, others – on an outpatient basis, lived at home, but regularly sought help from medical institutions.
For a week, these patients carried an extra phone with them to track their movements using GPS. They also completed several questionnaires about their subjective well-being, psychological flexibility, and mental health symptoms.
Comparing GPS maps with the results of these surveys, the authors found that more movement in space and time coincided with a greater sense of well-being, even if the symptoms of mental disorders remained virtually unchanged.
Outpatients spent almost a third of their day at home, but understandably demonstrated significantly more mobility than inpatients, who spent most of their time within hospital walls.
As expected, patients with phobias or anxiety about leaving the safe space were strongly associated with much less mobility and a much smaller area of activity. However, no other psychiatric symptoms had the same effect on the patient’s daily movements.
In contrast, higher levels of emotional well-being and, to a lesser extent, psychological flexibility were consistently associated with greater mobility and a greater variety of movements.
“Our results suggest that activity alone is not enough to reduce symptoms of psychiatric disorders, but it can at least improve subjective well-being,” explained clinical and medical psychologist Andrew Gloucester of the University of Basel.
The findings add to the limited body of research on the impact of daily activities on people with mental disorders. In fact, this is one of the first studies to use GPS tracking as a measure of spontaneous movement.
Obviously, in the real world, such data can be seen as a breach of patient confidentiality, but in a research setting, it allows researchers to explore the impact of simple actions that often go unnoticed.
Physical activity has been proven to significantly improve well-being and mental health, but most of the research on this topic so far has focused on targeted exercise. It is unclear how spontaneous movement in daily life affects patients seeking psychiatric care.
In 2020, a small study of 67 people found that daily activities like walking to a tram stop or climbing stairs make people feel more alert and energized.
Further magnetic resonance imaging of the participants’ brains showed that those who felt more energized after movement had more gray matter volume in the popliteal cingulate cortex, a part of the brain associated with emotional regulation.
Figuring out how to apply this knowledge to prevent and treat mental disorders is another matter entirely, but simple movements can be a harmless start.
“We are currently experiencing severe restrictions on social life and social contacts, which can negatively affect our well-being,” neuroscientist Heike Tost said in November 2020.
“To feel better, climbing stairs more often can help.”
Simply going outside can also play a role. Physical activity in nature in childhood has been associated with improved mental health in adulthood, and physicians in some parts of the world have begun to “prescribe” time in nature as a means of promoting mental and physical health.
The 2021 GPS study is small and limited, but the results suggest that movement may be a predictor of how well patients with mental health issues are doing overall.
“The results indicate that movement patterns (eg, distance, number of destinations, destination variability, etc.) may serve as a marker of functioning and well-being,” the study authors concluded.
Much more research is needed to confirm and expand on these findings, but the authors suggest that the use of GPS could be a non-intrusive way to delve deeper into simple daily activities and their impact on mental health and well-being.
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