Exercise in a group to lower your stress levels, says study

Group workouts are better for your mental wellbeing. (pic credit: Adrian Hillman)

Exercise is known to boost your mood and make you feel better: it’s hard to feel low or anxious when you’re working up a sweat in the gym or fitness studio. Exercise builds resilience and helps you release negative stuff you’ve been holding onto. Yet recent research has aimed to quantify this feeling by examining how you exercise and the way it links with your emotional wellbeing and quality of life.

The study – published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Foundation – found exercising on your own means you try harder but won’t necessarily feel any fitter or any less stressed. Work out in a group, however, and this can bring your stress levels down and improve your quality of life. The research was carried out among 69 medical students, a group known to suffer higher stress levels – though the results of the study can be applied to a general population.

Participants chose either a group or individual exercise programme over 12 weeks. Every four weeks they filled out a survey regarding their levels of perceived stress and quality of life in three aspects: mental, physical and emotional.

At the end of the 12 weeks, those participating in structured weekly group exercise showed a 26% reduction in their stress levels. They also reported an improvement in all three quality of life measures: mental (13%), physical (25%) and emotional (26%). They also reported a 26.2 percent reduction in perceived stress levels. In contrast, those who chose their own fitness regime and worked out whenever they wanted – by themselves –  saw no significant changes in any measure, except in mental quality of life (11% increase).

Drawing a conclusion from the findings, Dr Dayna Yorks from the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, and lead researcher on this study, said: “These findings should not be interpreted as a condemnation of individual exercise. We believe much benefit can be derived from physical exercise of any kind, but the addition of group fitness classes may have additional benefits. The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone.”

How dancing can help keep your brain young

Tap your feet to the beat to stay younger for longer.
(pic copyright: Nataliya Gvozdeva)

Any form of exercise can help stop the brain declining with age. Yet a new study shows that dancing beats other forms of fitness activities for its impact on slowing down the process of brain ageing. Varying the kind of dancing you do – especially if learning new, complicated routines – can enhance that impact.

The research, published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Journal, asked two groups of elderly volunteers (average age 68) to engage in dancing or in endurance and flexibility training over a period of 18 months. The aim was to observe how these activities would affect the area of the brain that declines with age – the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory, learning and balance, and can be affected by dementia. The endurance training volunteers repeated the same exercises each week, while the dancers had a new routine to learn.

Lead author of the study Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, based at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, said that the dancers were given routines from dance genres such as Jazz, Latin and Line dancing, and they had to remember their routines without being prompted or helped by their teachers. This extra challenge – remembering, not just working out – showed a greater degree of improvement in balance among the dancers than among the volunteers on fitness programme.

The researchers concluded: “Only the dancers achieved a significant increase in the balance composite score. Hence, dancing constitutes a promising candidate in counteracting the age-related decline in physical and mental abilities.” Not to mention the mood-boosting qualities of being swept across a dance floor in tune with your favourite beat.

How creativity today can boost wellbeing tomorrow

Creative pursuits such as knitting can boost your emotional wellbeing. (Copyright: Oleksii Rashevskyi)

Indulge in creative activities today, and you could well feel more joy, enthusiasm and uplift tomorrow. That’s according to research into the relationship between day-to-day creativity and wellbeing by New Zealand’s University of Utago.

Psychology researchers analysed the daily diaries of 658 university students, where they logged their experiences and emotional states over 13 days.

Patterns emerged showing that participants felt more enthusiastic and had higher “flourishing” in the days after they had been creative. Flourishing is a concept that determines overall wellbeing, happiness and potential for growth.

Lead researcher Dr Tamlin Conner said previous research had focused on how emotions can hamper or support creative activity. However, in this new study, rather than positive feelings predicting next-day creative activity, it was actually previous day’s creative activity that predicted the next day’s positive feelings and wellbeing.

Top creative activities for wellbeing include:

  • Songwriting.
  • Creative writing (poetry, short fiction).
  • Knitting and crochet.
  • Making new recipes.
  • Painting, drawing, and sketching.
  • Graphic and digital design.
  • Musical performance.

Dr Conner concluded: “This finding suggests a particular kind of upward spiral for wellbeing and creativity – engaging in creative behaviour leads to increases in wellbeing the next day, and this increased wellbeing is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day. Overall, these findings support the emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning.”

Time to get those knitting needles out…

How fruit and veg can make you happier

davanti counselling happy fruit

There is a psychological payoff to eating more healthily. (pic credit: freedigitalphotos.net/nixxphotography)

We’ve all heard about the five-a-day mantra for keeping our bodies healthy. Well, now new research claims that eating more fruit and veg is good for your psychological health too.

In a study involving 12,000 people from 2007 to 2013, scientists at the University of Warwick and the University of Queensland, Australia asked participants to keep a food diary. Their psychological wellbeing was measured too.

The researchers discovered that people’s happiness levels increased within two years of eating more fruit and veg (up to eight portions a day). They said this represented “an increase in life satisfaction equivalent to moving from unemployment to employment”.

Happiness increased incrementally the more fruit and vegetables a person consumed. While healthy eating has proven to boost physical health years down the line, the impact on psychological health and happiness could be enjoyed much sooner.

Dr Redzo Mujcic, research fellow at the University of Queensland, added: “Perhaps our results will be more effective than traditional messages in convincing people to have a healthy diet. There is a psychological payoff now from fruit and vegetables – not just a lower health risk decades later.”

How curiosity can be a curse, according to science

davanti counselling pandora's box

Curiosity can open a Pandora’s Box of difficulties. (copyright Christos Georghiou).

The relentless human desire to know – to satisfy curiosity at all costs – can be more of a curse than a blessing, according to scientists. Whether it’s surreptitiously checking your partner’s phone for signs of infidelity, avidly reading celebrity gossip mags, or hunting people down on social media, too much curiosity can be like opening Pandora’s Box: the urge to do it can outweigh any benefits you might get from knowing, and it can seriously affect your happiness and wellbeing.

Researchers from the Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, and the Wisconsin School of Business have discovered The Pandora Effect: The power and peril of curiosity, published in Psychological Science. They explored what they call the ‘perverse’ side of curiosity to show that it can cause more harm than it’s worth.

The scientists carried out four experiments that exposed people to electric shocks with no apparent benefits, to prove a point that people were driven by “humans’ deep-seated desire to resolve uncertainty, regardless of the harm it may bring”. One experiment involved clicking colour-coded pens, some of which had electric shocks and some didn’t. Where there was uncertainty (not clear which colour pens had batteries) people clicked more of the pens.

The researchers said: “The study suggests that humans possess an inherent desire, independent of consequentialist considerations, to resolve uncertainty; when facing something uncertain and feeling curious, they will act to resolve the uncertainty even if they expect negative consequences. Just as curiosity drove Pandora to open the box despite being warned of its pernicious contents, curiosity can lure humans—like you and me—to seek information with predictably ominous consequences.”

Something to bear in mind before you start secretly stalking your ex on social media. Sometimes, for your own happiness, it may be better just not to know.

Related articles:

Why uncertainty creates the worst kind of stress

Biggest source of employee stress is now knowing what bosses want

How writing a poem can make you feel better

davanti counselling rhyme and resilience

Writing down your emotions can be a route to healing. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/surasakiStock)

Today is World Poetry Day, set up by UNESCO to “recognise the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind”. You don’t have to be a poet to write a poem. You can just sit down and let fragments of thought and feeling tumble onto the page. Writing a poem is a unique way of connecting to feeling, and can boost your wellbeing. Research has shown that the act of writing about emotional experiences has physiological and psychological benefits. Here’s how writing a poem can help you feel better:

  • Giving emotions to the page can release you from them. The page can hold the feeling so you don’t have to.
  • The structure and discipline of poetry can offer containment for overwhelming emotions.
  • Putting your feelings onto paper or screen is like having your own personal therapist whenever you need to be heard and understood.
  • Writing about your experience can help make meaning from chaos.
  • Writing can help you understand and reconstruct the part of you that’s been hurt, shamed, stressed or depressed.
  • A metaphor can work with difficult feelings without re-traumatising.
  • If you feel stuck, write about your stuckness to release the energy.
  • Writing things down helps you dis-identify from your emotions: you can HAVE emotions but don’t need to BE them.
  • Having a piece of writing to look back on reminds you of the distance you’ve travelled between now and when the pain was experienced.

Happy World Poetry Day!

Related articles:

How to express your true feelings in words on World Poetry Day

How to use a poem to contain overwhelming emotions

Are you ready to transform “winter’s dreams into summer’s magic”?

davanti counselling st patricks day

What can the festival of ‘green’ inspire you to achieve as winter disappears? (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Rattikankeawpun)

One of the prettiest quotes for St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, is this one attributed to Adrienne Cook: “St. Patrick’s Day is an enchanted time – a day to begin transforming winter’s dreams into summer’s magic.”

Stepping beyond the leprechauns, four-leaved clovers and jaunty hats that have come to characterise St Patrick’s Day, I’m wondering whether the “wearing of the green” could have more symbolic significance, given that winter is about to tip into spring? Here’s my metaphorical take on the day:

Snakes: St Patrick was legendarily attributed to have chased all the snakes away from Ireland (though an impossibility, reportedly, that there were any snakes, given the climate), and yet the timing of the feast day could represent an opportunity to chase away the snakes from your life. What is lurking in your life, sliding insidiously and hissing at your efforts? Could it be time to shed an old skin and allow a new, truer you to emerge?

Green: Symbol of rebirth, transformation, growth. Taken metaphorically, wearing green can help you focus on your heart’s desire. You can work on cutting away the weeds that are strangling your roots and preventing your potential from coming to bloom. Focus on green to sow the seeds of hope and harmony in your life.

Luck: The four-leaved clover may be a one-in-a-10,000 find, and yet some of us still hold out hope that we will find that rarity – while ignoring what we have around us. What are the gifts staring you in the face that you may not be appreciating? What are you searching, yearning for in the future that may leave you depleted in the present? Stay in the now and feel gratitude for what you have.

And those dreams into magic? It’s the time of year when New Year’s Resolutions may be a faded, embarrassed promise, and the clocks going forward represent renewed chances and more daylight to achieve something. If the timing of St Patrick’s Day really does represent an “enchanted time”, then take today as an opportunity to kick-start something you’ve been dreaming about for some time. Have you been hibernating in thought during darker hours? Promising yourself that you’ll shake yourself out of something? Today could be the time to grasp the energy of green and bring some wakefulness into your own dreams.

Happy St Patrick’s Day!