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Physical activity - no matter how minimal - can have a positive effect on happiness, according to the largest ever smartphone-based study.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Essex found that modest levels of physical activity – even if it could not be classified as exercise – can increase a person’s reported emotional wellbeing, regardless of their baseline level of happiness.

Gathering data from more than 10,000 individuals who used a mood tracking app on their telephones, the researchers also found that people reported being happier when they were physically active.

Earlier studies in this area have focused on the relationship between exercise and happiness, with mixed results. Some studies have found that happier people report exercising more, while others have found no relationship between happiness and exercise. Much of the past research has relied solely on retrospective self-reports, on data collected at only one period of time, and on small samples.

In this latest study, published in the Public Library of Science One journal, data on physical activity was passively gathered from smartphone accelerometers. An accelerometer is an instrument that measures the acceleration of a moving or vibrating body.

Participants were also sent a short survey at two random times of the day which asked questions about their emotional state. Users reported how they felt on a grid, based on how positive or negative, and how energetic or sleepy, they were feeling. Users were also asked questions about how their mood compared to normal.

While the researchers could not pinpoint what participants were doing at any given time, they found that those who had higher levels of activity throughout the day reported a more positive emotional state.

The paper’s senior author Dr Jason Rentfrow, from Cambridge University’s department of psychology, said: “Our data show that happy people are more active in general. However, our analyses also indicated that periods of physical activity led to increased positive mood, regardless of individuals’ baseline happiness. There have been many studies about the positive psychological effects of exercise, but what we’ve found is that in order to be happier, you don’t have to go out and run a marathon – all you’ve really got to do is periodically engage in slight physical activity throughout the day.”

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Physical activity - no matter how minimal - can have a positive effect on happiness, according to the largest ever smartphone-based study.
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