A variety in everyday movements is linked to better wellbeing, according to a small new study of psychiatric patients, a finding that may help to explain why pandemic lockdowns have been tough for so 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 taken to 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 mental-boosting activities, we imagine deliberate and strenuous exercise, like a jog, a bike, or a swim, but it seems that just visiting a variety of different locations is associated with a higher sense of wellbeing in people with depression or anxiety.
A newly published study from researchers at the University Psychiatric Clinics in Basel, Switzerland has found the more varied locations people visit, the better they feel about their emotional and psychological wellbeing – even if their mental health symptoms are still there.
The study was conducted before the pandemic hit and it looked at 106 patients with mental health issues, including affective disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Some were inpatients at hospitals and others were outpatients, living at home but seeking regular care at medical institutions.
For a week, these patients carried an extra phone around with them to track their movements with GPS. They also completed several surveys on their subjective wellbeing, their psychological flexibility, and their mental health symptoms.
Comparing GPS maps to the results of these surveys, the authors found greater movement in space and time appeared to coincide with a greater sense of wellbeing, even though the symptoms of mental health issues remained largely the same.
Outpatients spent nearly a third of their day at home but understandably showed considerably greater movement than inpatients, who spent most of their time within the hospital.
As expected, those patients with phobias or anxieties about leaving safe spaces were strongly linked to much lower mobility and a much smaller activity area. Yet no other symptoms of mental health issues appeared to have the same effect on a patient's daily movements.
In contrast, higher levels of emotional wellbeing and, to a lesser extent, psychological flexibility were consistently associated with more movement and a greater variety of movement.
"Our results suggest that activity alone is not enough to reduce symptoms of mental disorders, but can at least improve subjective wellbeing," explains clinical and health psychologist Andrew Gloster from the University of Basel.
The findings add to a limited body of research on the effects of everyday activities among those with mental health issues. 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 could be seen as a breach of patient privacy, but in a study setting, it allows researchers to examine the effects of simple activities that often go overlooked.
Physical activity has been shown to substantially improve wellbeing and mental health, but most research on this topic has so far focused on deliberate exercise. Today, it's unclear how spontaneous movement in daily life impacts patients who are seeking mental health treatment.
Last year, a small study of 67 participants found everyday activities, like walking to the tram stop or climbing a flight of stairs, made people feel more alert and energetic.
Further magnetic resonance imaging of participants' brains showed those who felt more energetic after movement had a larger volume of gray brain matter in the subgenual cingulate cortex – a part of the brain associated with emotional regulation.
Figuring out how to apply this knowledge to prevent and treat mental health issues is a whole other matter, but simple movements might be a harmless place to start.
"Currently, we are experiencing strong restrictions of public life and social contacts, which may adversely affect our well-being," said neuroscientist Heike Tost in November 2020.
"To feel better, it may help to more often climb stairs."
Merely getting outside may also play a contributing role. Physical activity in nature as a kid has been tied to better mental health outcomes as an adult, and doctors in some places of the world have begun 'prescribing' time in nature as a boost for mental and physical health.
The new GPS study is small and limited, but the findings suggest movement may be a predictor of how well patients with mental health issues are coping overall.
"The results point to the fact that patterns of movement (e.g., distance, number of destinations, variability of destinations, etc.) may serve as a marker of functioning and wellbeing," the authors of the new study conclude.
Far more research needs to be done to confirm and expand on these findings, but the authors suggest using GPS could be a non-intrusive way to better examine simple, daily activity and its effect on mental health and wellbeing.
The study was published in BMC Psychiatry.