Being active

Being active makes life sweeter: a roundup of all the research to-date


Stepping outside, hands-in-pockets, strolling, saying hi to friends. When people can walk to work, the commute can be a highlight of the day. The exercise they get in the process may also make them happier overall.

A recent meta-analysis by Zhanjia Zhang and Weiyun Chen summarizes all research to-date on the connection between physical activity and happiness. While most work on the subject has focused on physical activity as a kind of medication for mental health disorders like depression, this study stresses the role of being active for everyone’s quality of life.

The impact can be profound. One study reviewed found that highly active people are 52% happier than the least active. Anything that can make life feel half-and-again sweeter is good news.

As with most research on physical activity, the greatest difference is seen between sedentary and minimally active people, especially among those who are overweight. When a moderately active person becomes vigorously active, the effect also appears to be possitive, but the magnitude is smaller. In the same way that adding any foundation to a house at all matters more to its stability than using slightly better concrete, being at least somewhat active does more for happiness than being a bit more active. But both matter.

One confounding factor for this research is that happier people are more likely to want to get outside and walk, so it’s possible they are active because they are happier, not the other way around. While randomized control trials have been conducted on the impact of exercise on depression, few have teased out how much it supports a better overall appreciation of life. That work needs to be done. Building communities that support being active isn’t just a matter of health; it makes life itself better. 

Photo credit: Emil Chuchkov.