Diversity in daily movements is associated with better well-being, according to a small new study of psychiatric patients, a finding that could help explain why blocking a pandemic has been difficult for so many of us.
Staying active during a global pandemic has been quite difficult, especially when many people are afraid to even go out. Some have taken exercise 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 thinking, we imagine a deliberate and strenuous exercise, such as jogging, cycling or swimming, but it seems that visiting different places is associated with a higher sense of well-being in people with depression or anxiety .
A new study by researchers at the University Psychiatric Clinic in Basel, Switzerland, found that the more diverse places people visit, the better they feel about their emotional and psychological well-being ̵
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 disorder. Some are inpatients in hospitals, while others are outpatients, living at home but seeking regular care in hospitals.
For a week, these patients carried an extra phone around to track their GPS movements. They also completed several studies on their subjective well-being, their psychological flexibility, and their mental symptoms.
Comparing GPS maps with the results of these studies, the authors found that greater movement in space and time seemed to coincide with a greater sense of well-being, although the symptoms of mental health problems remained largely the same.
Outpatients spend nearly a third of their day at home, but understandably show significantly more movement than patients who spend most of their time in the hospital.
As expected, patients with phobias or anxiety about leaving safe spaces were strongly associated with much lower mobility and much smaller area of activity. Yet there are no other symptoms of mental problems that have 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 more movement and a greater variety of movements.
“Our results show that activity alone is not enough to reduce the symptoms of mental disorders, but it can at least improve subjective well-being,” explains clinical and health psychologist Andrew Gloucester of the University of Basel.
The findings contribute to a limited number of studies 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, such data can be seen as a breach of patient confidentiality, but in a study setting, they allow researchers to investigate the effects of simple activities that are often overlooked.
Physical activity has been shown to significantly improve well-being and mental health, but most research on this topic so far has focused on intentional exercise. Today, it is not clear how spontaneous daily movements affect patients seeking mental health treatment.
Last year, a small survey of 67 participants found that daily activities, such as walking to the tram stop or climbing stairs, made people feel more alert and energetic.
Further magnetic resonance imaging of the participants’ brains showed that those who felt more energetic after movement had a larger volume of gray matter in the subcutaneous cingulate cortex, the part of the brain associated with emotional regulation.
Figuring out how to apply this knowledge to prevent and treat mental health problems is another matter altogether, but simple movements can be a harmless place to start.
“We are currently experiencing severe limitations in public life and social contacts that could adversely affect our well-being,” said neurologist Heike Tost in November 2020.
“To make you feel better, it can help you climb stairs more often.”
Just going out can also play a role. Physical activity in nature as a child is associated with better mental health outcomes as an adult, 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 are coping with mental health problems in general.
“The results point to the fact that traffic patterns (eg distance, number of destinations, destination variability, etc.) can serve as a marker for 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 may be an unobtrusive way to better explore normal daily activities and their effects on mental health and well-being.
The study was published in BMC Psychiatry.