Is Any Kind of Physical Activity Good for Your Health?

Mental health problems are less frequent among people whose everyday work tends to be rather non-physical, as long as they work out in their leisure time. Those whose workdays are full of physical load are more likely to suffer from symptoms of depression.

These are the conclusions of a large-scale survey investigating the health of Estonian women, led by Merike Kull, a lecturer at the Faculty of Exercise and Sport Sciences of the University of Tartu. Merike explains that the goal of the survey was to make it clear whether all kinds of physical activity are good for one’s mental health or if the result is somehow connected to the type of physical activity taken.

Kull said that earlier studies of Australian housewives, for example, had shown that although women at home with children have days full of physical activity (all the walking and carrying the stroller up and down the stairs), it doesn’t keep away depression.

University of Tartu Sports Day

UT staff and their families exercising at the UT Sports Day on May 5, 2012. Photo by Andres Tennus.

Women in Danger of Depression

Depression is the most common mental disorder in the world, and women are especially vulnerable, as they constitute two-thirds of all sufferers.

Many studies have shown the connection between more physical activity and better mental health. However, there is a problem with these studies: They almost always focus on participating in physical training, and women’s everyday physical activity was left out of the picture. Women get most of their physical load when they’re at work, doing domestic chores, or caring for children, while sports for fun account for much less.

Scientists at UT decided to test the hypothesis that the physical load of professional or domestic work affects mental balance in different ways than recreational training.

The survey of the physical activity levels of Estonian women encompassed 956 women aged from 18 to 50, each filling out a questionnaire about their physical load at work, and whether they commute by bicycle or by foot.

Depression levels were evaluated with a survey asking the participants to evaluate the mood they’d been in lately, as well as to recall how often they’d cried, had thoughts about suicide and felt guilty of something or not at peace with themselves. The women also filled out a test about their personal traits and offered information about their economic well-being, health and weight.

Work That Is Too Tiring

The study showed that the week of an average Estonian woman includes 17.4 hours of physical work (including domestic chores), 5.1 hours of physical activity related to going to work or coming back from work, and 2.7 hours of physical activity in leisure time.

According to Merike Kulli, the women who had no physical activity in their leisure time were clearly the most depressed. Their everyday work was mostly of a physical nature, i.e., in the agricultural or trade sectors.

“It could be that they’re too tired and exhausted by their work to even consider physical training just for fun,” Kulli said.

Women who didn’t have to move much at work, but could find time for it afterwards were a lot happier. “It’s important to take this time for yourself. Also, it turned out that doing sports for fun was more beneficial for women with more pronounced extrovert traits in their personalities. The mental well-being of neurotic personalities didn’t seem that clearly positively affected by sport,” Kulli said.

ResearchBlogging.orgKull M, Ainsaar M, Kiive E, & Raudsepp L (2012). Relationship between low depressiveness and domain specific physical activity in women. Health care for women international, 33 (5), 457-72 PMID: 22497329

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