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Exercise over social media: less stress, more life satisfaction

Individuals who cut their social media use by 30 minutes a day, and use this time for physical activity, can dramatically improve their mental health. This is the conclusion of a study led by Dr. Julia Brailovskaia of the Mental Health Research and Treatment Center at Ruhr-Universität Bochum.

Participants who replaced 30 minutes of social media with exercise every day for two weeks had powerful results. They reported feeling happier, more satisfied, less stressed, and less depressed. The positive effects persisted for at least six months after the study had ended.

“’Digitalization’ is a main characteristic of the twenty-first century. It represents a transformation of society to an intensive use of digital technologies in various areas of life,” wrote the study authors. “Daily use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and WhatsApp is a central aspect of this transformation.”

“The global outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 resulted in significant changes in people’s daily routine. Lockdowns, curfews, and restrictions of offline social contacts (“social distancing”) sped up the digital transformation in various sectors. Social media use became one of the main options for social interaction and pastime.”

The experts noted that excessive social media use is known to have a negative influence on mental health. “Intensive active exchange with other users can evoke the perception of social support, which fosters the development of an emotional bond to social media. This bond is closely linked to an obsessive need to stay permanently online, even if the use interferes with obligations and causes interpersonal conflicts,” wrote the study authors.

The researchers set out to investigate how to improve mental health in this time of rapid digitalization. They wanted to explore cost- and time-efficient strategies that may help protect the public from the adverse effects of social media addiction. 

“Given that we don’t know for certain how long the coronavirus crisis will last, we wanted to know how to protect people’s mental health with services that are as free and low-threshold as possible,” explained Dr. Brailovskaia. 

For the investigation, the team recruited a total of 642 volunteers, who were randomly assigned to one of four groups. The first group reduced daily social media use by 30 minutes, the second group increased physical activity by 30 minutes per day, and the third group was instructed to do both – reduce social media use and increase physical activity for 30 minutes a day. Members of the fourth (control) group did not change their behavior during the two-week trial.

The participants completed online surveys before, during, and up to six months after the two-week intervention phase. The surveys documented the duration, intensity and emotional significance of their social media use; physical activity; overall life satisfaction; subjective feeling of happiness; depressive symptoms; the psychological burden of the Covid-19 pandemic; and cigarette consumption.

The results clearly showed that both reducing the amount of time spent on social media and increasing physical activity had a positive impact on well-being. The experts found that in all of the experiential groups, addictive social media use and depressive symptoms decreased, while physical activity, life satisfaction, and subjective happiness increased. “All effects were stronger and more stable in the combination group in the longer-term,” wrote the researchers.

The team found that six months after the intervention, the combination group dedicated one hour and 39 minutes more to physical activity each week. The positive mental health effects continued throughout the entire follow-up period.

“This shows us how vital it is to reduce our availability online from time to time and to go back to our human roots,” said Dr. Brailovskaia. “These measures can be easily implemented into one’s everyday life and they’re completely free – and, at the same time, they help us to stay happy and healthy in the digital age.”

The study is published in the Journal of Public Health.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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