In a small study conducted among psychiatric patients, it was discovered that a variety in everyday movements could have a positive effect on overall wellbeing. While traditional mental-boosting activities are often associated with deliberate and strenuous exercise, such as jogging or swimming, this study suggests that simply visiting different locations can lead to a higher sense of wellbeing for individuals with depression or anxiety. The study, conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, involved 106 patients with various mental health issues, including affective disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Participants, both inpatients and outpatients, were asked to carry an extra phone equipped with GPS technology for a week to track their movements. They also completed surveys on subjective wellbeing, psychological flexibility, and mental health symptoms.
By comparing GPS data with survey results, the researchers determined that increased movement in both space and time was closely associated with a higher sense of wellbeing among the participants. Interestingly, while the symptoms of mental health issues remained relatively stable, greater movement appeared to have a positive impact on subjective wellbeing. Outpatients, who had more freedom to move, spent significantly more time outside their homes compared to inpatients, who were largely confined to the hospital. Not surprisingly, outpatients with phobias or anxiety related to leaving safe spaces had lower mobility and engaged in less diverse activities. However, other symptoms of mental health issues did not seem to have the same effect on daily movements. Emotional wellbeing and, to a lesser extent, psychological flexibility consistently correlated with increased movement and a greater variety of activities.
The Role of Spontaneous Movement
This study is one of the first to utilize GPS tracking as a means of measuring spontaneous movement. While privacy concerns may arise in real-world applications, the use of such data in a controlled setting enables researchers to examine the effects of simple activities that are often overlooked. Previous research has shown that deliberate physical exercise can significantly improve mental health and overall wellbeing. However, the impact of spontaneous movement in daily life on individuals seeking mental health treatment remains unclear. A recent study conducted in 2021 on a small sample of participants found that everyday activities, such as walking to the tram stop or climbing stairs, increased alertness and energy levels. Brain imaging also revealed that individuals who felt more energetic after movement had a larger volume of gray matter in the subgenual cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotional regulation. Identifying ways to apply this knowledge to prevent and treat mental health issues poses a challenge, but incorporating simple movements into daily routines may serve as a harmless starting point.
Getting outside and engaging in physical activity in nature may also contribute to mental wellbeing. Studies have shown that childhood exposure to nature is linked to better mental health outcomes in adulthood. As a result, some healthcare professionals have started recommending time spent in nature as a beneficial intervention for mental and physical health. Although the recent GPS study has its limitations due to its small sample size and scope, the findings suggest that movement patterns, such as distance traveled, number of destinations, and variability of destinations, can serve as markers of overall functioning and wellbeing among individuals with mental health issues.
The relationship between everyday movements and mental wellbeing is an area that warrants further exploration. While deliberate exercise is commonly recognized as beneficial for mental health, incorporating a variety of movements and engaging in spontaneous activities can also have a positive impact. The simple act of visiting different locations or spending time in nature may contribute to increased wellbeing among individuals with mental health challenges. Future research should focus on developing strategies to integrate these findings into mental health treatment plans, ultimately improving the lives of those affected by mental health issues.