Physical activity can counteract the negative effects of being alone


Social isolation and loneliness are major social problems. Their negative impact on mental health has been exacerbated worldwide by the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers at the Central Institute of Mental Health (CIMH) in Mannheim, in collaboration with scientists from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB), and the University of Bern, have investigated the extent to which physical activity can mitigate the negative effects of social isolation on well-being. The interdisciplinary research team, including scientists from the DZPG, has published the results of its study in the journal Nature Mental Health.

Positive effects of exercise

The study shows that people who were currently alone in their daily lives reported a comparatively lower level of well-being, but this increased when they were physically active. The data suggest that physical activity, such as walking for one hour at a speed of five kilometers per hour, can compensate for the current "social-affective deficit". In further exploratory analyses, the researchers describe that this beneficial effect of exercise persisted even at lower levels of physical activity and during pandemic-related restrictions. Investigations of the subjects' brain function also showed that people at increased neural risk for depression and loneliness benefited particularly from a more physically active lifestyle.

The study included 317 young adults and a second group of 30 adults who were examined during the Covid-19 pandemic. The researchers used a variety of methods for their study, including accelerometers, smartphones with electronic diaries, and brain imaging. This approach allowed the researchers to study the complex interplay between social contact, physical activity, and psychological well-being in everyday life, and to identify the associated brain functions.

Dynamic interplay

"Previous studies have mostly examined social contact and physical activity independently. Our study extends this knowledge by showing a dynamic interplay between these two factors in everyday life, which has an impact on affective well-being," says Anastasia Benedyk from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the ZI, who is the first author of the study together with Prof. Dr. Markus Reichert (CIMH and RUB).

Prof. Dr. Dr. Heike Tost, also from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the CIMH, adds: "The results suggest that physical activity can be used as an effective and accessible strategy to counteract the psychological effects of loneliness and improve public health".

Original publication: Real-life behavioral and neural circuit markers of physical activity as a compensatory mechanism for social isolation. Benedyk, A., Reichert, M., Giurgiu, M. et al. Nat Mental Health 2.2024:337–342.

Source: DZPG

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