A unique study by Indiana University researchers found that physical activity throughout the day – simply moving – is related to positive feelings, but they found no similar relationship between physical activity and negative moods.

“In the study, if people are more active, they tend to report a more positive mood,” said Bryan McCormick, associate professor in IU Bloomington’s School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. “Really low levels of activity are related to lower levels of positive affect.”

For the study, included as a poster presentation at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting in Indianapolis, physical activity was considered movement beyond resting – not formal exercise.

“People often see physical activity as having to be exercise, but it doesn’t have to be exercise,” McCormick said. “Physical activity beyond a resting state does appear to be related to mood.”

The study is unique because it tracks moment-by-moment physical activity throughout the day and compares it to reports study participants make throughout the day of their activities and feelings.

The 25 study participants wore uniaxial accelerometers during waking hours for seven days so their physical activity could be recorded. They also wore wristwatches with preprogrammed alarms that signaled them seven times per day during this period so they could fill out brief reports. If they responded more than 20 minutes after the alarm, their report was disregarded in order to eliminate the ambiguity of “recall.” Most studies involving mood and physical activity rely on recall, and compare it to overall physical activity levels, not moment-by-moment activity.

“Most research distinguishes between positive and negative mood,” McCormick said. “In our study, the moment-by-moment activity is related to positive mood – but not related to negative mood state.”

Physical activity and exercise is drawing more attention as a possible way to influence mild depression.

“In some ways, it might treat mild depression in that it increases our positive feelings, but it doesn’t necessarily take away our negative feelings,” McCormick said.

This study is part of a larger research project involving adults with serious mental illness. McCormick, an associate professor in the School of HPER’s Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies, is collaborating with Georgia Frey, associate professor in the School of HPER’s Department of Kinesiology and lead author of this mood and physical activity study.

“The results of this study were modest and based on a relatively small sample,” Frey said, “but the findings are encouraging.” The study participants represented a general population, not a clinical population (Newswise).