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Give yourself a sporting chance

Every month, Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good. This month, can sporting activities have an impact on your happiness?

by Psychologies

THE PROJECT

There's no doubt that participating in sporting activities is good for your physical health - but how can it impact happiness?

THE AIM

Factoring sports into your life can help to give you a more positive outlook on life.

THE THEORY

It has long been known that regularly taking part in physical activity is good for your physical health - it helps to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. It can also boost mental health. In a 1999 study, Professor Ken Fox of the University of Bristol said: '...this body of research suggests that moderate regular exercise should be considered as a viable means of treating depression and anxiety and improving mental well-being in the general public.' And in the same year, Blumenthal et al found that exercise was equally as effective as a commonly prescribed anti-depressant in reducing depressive symptoms. Exercise has also been found to improve physical self-perception, self-esteem, emotional wellbeing, energy levels and confidence.

So why does physical activity make us feel so good? We know that when we exercise, the body releases chemicals called endorphins which trigger positive feelings (similar to that of morphine) as well as having a pain-relieving and sedative effect. But experts suggest that it may not just because of this - being physically active just seems to make us happier.

In a 2011 study reported in the International Review of Applied Economics, Professor Paul Downward of the University of Loughborough looked at 67 sports activities and found that wellbeing and happiness increased with sports participation. The effects were greatest where the sports involved social interaction - team sports, for example.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health also found there was a causal relationship between participating in sports and 'subjective well-being'. In other words, even after taking into account such factors as age, education, income and household structure, they found that 'individuals who practice sport report higher levels of happiness.' And the study's authors say that the impact on happiness is so great that it should be a 'policy priority of many governments to increase sport participation at all levels of the general population.'

The mechanism by which sport affects happiness is still to be established and needs further research, says the study. But positive psychologist Dr Christopher Peterson suggests that the happiness-inducing features could be from playing a role, the shared identity from being in a team, learning important lessons about co-operation and more generally the social communion that comes from team sports.

TIPS ON HOW TO DO IT

1. Find your own 'team sport'

A 2011 study found that sports with social interactions make us happiest. But that doesn't mean having to join a football team or revisit nightmares of playing netball at school. Try something like a spinning or salsa class – both sociable and interactive.

2. Think small, not big

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about establishing 'keystone habits' from which other good habits can cascade. Someone saying 'Join a gym!' can seem like the antithesis of this - too big a task that is bound to end in failure. Instead, think small - really small. How about just exercising 5-10 minutes each day three times a week?

3. Twenty minutes will do...

Once you've got into your regular exercising habit, don't go overboard. Thrilled to hear this? This is what the experts say. Gretchen Reynolds, author of The First 20 Minutes says that to get the highest level of happiness and benefits for health, the key is small amounts of physical activity each day. She says: 'The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits.' So just focus on 20 minutes of physical activity (preferably in a team environment) and don't berate yourself if it's nothing more than that.

4. Watch sports, too

Studies have shown that people who are self-confessed sports fans tend to have lower rates of depression, less stress and higher self-esteem than non-sports-fans. And it doesn't have to be something mainstream like football - what about watching show-jumping, snowboarding or BMX biking on a regular basis?

MARTHA ROBERTS is an award-winning UK health writer and mental-health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com

Photograph: iStock

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Read Get happy from the outside in on Lifelabs

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