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Physical exercise and psychological well-being: A population study in Finland

Peter Hassmen
Department of Psychology, Stockholm University
Nathalie Koivula
Stockholm University College of Physical Education
Antti Uutela
National Public Health Institute

Published in 'Preventive Medicine', 30, 17-25, 2000

The purpose of this study was to investigate the association between physical exercise and various measures of psychological well-being.  The data was collected from a broad population sample of Finnish adults and consisted of 3,403 participants (1,856 women; 1,547 men) who were aged between 25 and 64 years.  

The researchers measured psychological well-being in terms of the absence of negative affect therefore they used scales measuring levels of depression, anger, distrust/hostility, and perceived stress.  They also assessed the extent to which participants felt they were in control of their health, that is, whether they believed that their health was controlled by luck or fate (counterproductive to health) or whether they believed they were personally responsible for their health status(health promoting).  The study also assessed 'sense of coherence', that is, the extent to which an individual has a pervasive and enduring feeling of confidence that life in general is comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful.  Social integration and perceived health and fitness levels were also measured.

The results indicated that people who were more physically active reported decreased depression in comparison to those who exercised less frequently, displaying lower scores on measures of negative affect and higher scores on measures of positive affect.  Individuals who exercised more frequently also scored lower on measures of distrust and were less likely to suppress their anger and hostility compared with those who did not exercise.  Exercisers also felt more socially integrated and demonstrated reduced levels of perceived stress compared with those who were physically inactive.  

Frequent exercisers did not rely on luck or fate for their health status and considered themselves to be responsible for their health to a greater extent than less active individuals.  The study also found that people who exercised frequently appeared to have a significantly stronger sense of coherence, which suggests that exercisers are able to maintain their health and manage the stresses of life more effectively than non-exercisers.    

Interestingly, those who exercised vigorously on a daily basis reported higher rates of depression.  Furthermore, exercising moderately on a regular basis, rather than participating in vigorous daily exercise, appeared to be associated with the lowest depression scores.  The researchers concluded that physical activity should not be too frequent or excessive but instead people should participate in moderate exercise more regularly in general in order to reap the psychological benefits. 
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