Physical activities and exercise may be some of the most effective solutions to anxiety and many other health issues, but are oftentimes the most underutilized. Living a sedentary life in a cubicle or a desk may be adversely affecting our mental health. Is there an inverse relationship between the time you spend sitting and the time you spend in motion?

In Volume 7 of the September 2014 issue of Mental Health and Physical Activity, Anu Kangasniemi from the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, evaluates the psychological differences between the physically active and the physically inactive. Kangasniemi determines psychological health by measuring how strong one's participant's mindfulness skills are. The study shows that the physically active generally lead happier, less anxious lives than those who spend most of their time in one place.

The Active Versus the Inactive

108 Finnish adults were recruited to the study and divided into two groups: the physically less active group and the physically active group. Those who fit into the physically less active group performed less than 2.5 hours of moderate-to-vigorous physical activities. Activities included, but weren't limited to:

  • Power walking
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Hiking
  • Basketball

Those who did more than 2.5 hours of these types of activities landed themselves in the physically active group. Kangasniemi objectively measured their physical activity using an accelerometer. Each participant wore an accelerometer to monitor the amount of moderate and vigorous physical activity they did.

One of the variables that made it difficult to place participants was individual levels of fitness. Power walking would be considered a light or moderate physical activity for a 22-year-old, but it may be a vigorous activity for someone's grandmother. The average age of participants was 43.05 years.

Mindfulness Skills, Psychological Flexibility, and Depression

After dividing the study population into the active and inactive, Kangasniemi assessed each individual's mindfulness skills. Mindfulness, popular in Western psychology for anxiety treatment, is adapted from Eastern medicine and involves bringing one's awareness to the present moment. Being aware of your experience now, rather than living in the past or present, helps you:

  • Become aware of your fears
  • Become more connected to yourself
  • Learn distinction between you and your thoughts
  • Develop self-acceptance

A questionnaire with 39 items was used to assess mindfulness. Participants were asked to rate each item on a one (never or very rarely true) to five (almost always or always true) scale. The questionnaire asked each subject to relate to statements such as:

  • I notice changes in my body, such as whether my breathing slows down or speeds up.
  • I'm good at finding the words to describe my feelings.
  • I criticize myself for having irrational or inappropriate emotions.

Psychological flexibility was measured using a 90-item checklist. Psychological flexibility is one's ability to adapt to situations and not be so fixated on one's impulsive thoughts and emotions. The more psychologically flexible you are, the less likely you are to act on emotions, and the more likely you are able to make a positive decision and action. Many treatments aim to teach patients how to adapt to situations and not act on emotion.

Lastly, levels of depression were measured in the participants. A 21-item checklist was used to measure the cognitive, behavioral, affective, and somatic aspects of depression.

What a Few Hours of Movement Can Do for You

The study showed that physically active adults had better mindfulness skills than the inactive adults. Additionally, evidence from this study also supports the claim that good mental health is positively related to one's level of physical activity. Kangasniemi says, “The causal relationship between being physically active and having good mindfulness skills cannot be considered conclusive, however, the results indicate that mindfulness may be an important factor related to having a physically active lifestyle."


Date of original publication:
Updated on: March 08, 2017


Any Kangasniemi, Raimo Lappalainen, Anna Kankaapää, Tuija Tammelin. Mindfulness skills, psychological flexibility, and psychological symptoms among physically less active and active adults. Mental Health and Physical Activity, September 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.mhpa.2014.06.005