Mental health benefits of replacing social media with exercise

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Spending less time on social media and more exercising time can enhance emotional well-being and reduce stress, according to research. Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
  • Replacing 30 minutes of social media use per day with physical activity can enhance emotional well-being and reduce stress, German researchers say.
  • The benefits of exercise lingered as much as 6 months after the end of their study.
  • Participants who cut back on social media and exercised more experienced greater happiness and less stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Reduced social media use also correlated with less tobacco consumption.

Social media use exploded with COVID-19’s lockdowns and contact restrictions. Millions turned to Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and other platforms to escape feelings of isolation, anxiety, and hopelessness.

However, excessive screen time has led to addictive behaviors, stronger emotional attachment to social media, and deeper mental anguish for many people.

Researchers at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany investigated the effects of reducing social media use (SMU) and increasing physical activity, or both, on emotional well-being and tobacco consumption.

Julia Brailosvskaia, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the university’s Mental Health Research and Treatment Center, led the two-week experiment.

Brailosvskaia and her team observed that the interventions they suggested may have helped enhance participants’ satisfaction with life. At a 6-month follow-up, the subjects continued to report spending less time on social media, maintaining physical activity, feeling happier, and smoking fewer cigarettes.

the Journal of Public Health recently published these findings.

The study’s authors noted that mental health “consists of two interrelated but separate dimensions: positive and negative.”

With this paradigm, they hypothesized that the positive dimension of their intervention would “increase life satisfaction and subjective happiness.” The negative dimension would decrease “depression symptoms and addictive tendencies of SMU.”

Medical NewsToday discussed this study with Dr. Sheldon Zablow, an author and nutritional psychiatrist. He wasn’t involved in the research.

When asked about the effects of social media on mental health, Dr. Zablow asserted:

“If activities interfere with customary basic age-appropriate milestones of economic self-sufficiency, socialization, or health maintenance, then they are detrimental. The activities could be alcohol use, substance use, dietary choices, exercise choices, or entertainment choices—specifically social media.”

dr Zablow warned that excessive social media use weakens social interpersonal bonds, which can negatively impact mental health.

MNT also spoke with Dr. David A. Merrill, adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, regarding the present study. He wasn’t involved in the research.

dr Merrill argued that the term social media is a “misnomer that’s almost like a bait and switch,” designed “to increase user engagement.”

Too much social media use, he said, “could end up exacerbating” mental issues for people with behavioral health conditions or addictive vulnerabilities.

“There’s the brain reward system that you get from clicking or scrolling or maintaining the use of the social media,” Dr. Merrill said.

“I think [that the authors are] causally demonstrating that you both need to have a conscious awareness of the need to limit the self-soothing aspect of social media use, and you also need to have alternatives, so you need to have some other way to bring joy into your life, and especially during the pandemic.”

As a psychiatrist, Dr. Zablow emphasized that “the essential part of any treatment program recommended is exercise. Psychotherapy and, when indicated, medication, will not work well if a person does not exercise.”

dr Zablow added that exercise increases the production of neurotransmitters, the brain’s “natural antidepressants and antianxiety molecules.”

Consequently, more exercise can build mental health, while less activity due to overuse social media can curtail healthy brain chemistry.

dr Brailosvskaia and her colleagues reasoned that a “conscious and controlled reduction of time spent on SMU as well as an increase of time spent on physical activity could causally reduce negative mental health consequences of the COVID-19 situation.” They also believed that combining both interventions might amplify this effect.

The professor mentioned that the methods can easily fit into everyday life with little cost, effort, or risk of violating COVID-19 protocols.

Further, the scientists expected their experiment to reduce stress caused by COVID-19 and diminish smoking behavior.

The researchers recruited 642 healthy adult social media users and placed them in 4 experimental groups.

The social media (SM) group had 162 individuals, the physical activity (PA) group of 161, a combination group of 159, and a control group of 160.

Over 2 weeks, the SM subjects reduced their daily SMU time by 30 minutes and the PA group increased their daily physical activity by 30 minutes. The combination group applied both interventions, while the control did not change their behaviors.

Following the World Health Organization’s physical activity recommendations for adults, the first three groups increased their exercise time by 30 minutes.

The participants completed online surveys and “daily compliance” diaries at the start of the trial, 1 week later, and after the 2-week period. They also submitted follow-up surveys at 1, 3, and 6 months post-experiment.

dr Brailosvskaia and her team concluded that their interventions helped people decrease the time they spend with SM.

Even 6 months after the experiment, “the participants had reduced their daily initial SM time by about 37 minutes in the SM group, by about 33 minutes in the PA group, and by about 46 minutes in the combination group.”

Moreover, participants reported having a decreased emotional bond with social media.

All the interventions encouraged more physical activity as well. “Six months later, our participants had enhanced their initial weekly physical activity time for 26 minutes in the SM group, for 40 minutes in the PA group, and for 1 hour 39 minutes in the combination group,” the authors wrote.

Even the control group increased their activity by 20 minutes.

dr Merrill was impressed with the study’s “striking findings with the combination of reducing social media with increasing physical activity.” He agreed with the notion that SMU restrictions need a complementing activity that brings joy or a sense of achievement.

According to the study’s authors, the “experimental longitudinal design” of their present research allowed them to establish causality.

However, the study population lacked diversity. All the participants were young, female, German, Caucasian, and highly educated.

dr Merrill felt that while it would be “interesting” to replicate this investigation in the United States with a more diverse group, the results would likely be similar.

The study did not consider which form of SMU the subjects were using or specify which type of physical activity the participants engaged in. The researchers hope that future work will focus more on these factors.

dr Brailosvskaia’s research suggests that modest changes in SMU and physical activity could help protect and enhance mental health conveniently and affordably.

The professor and her team recognize how SMU can minimize isolation and help spread information.

“From time to time, it is important to consciously limit one’s online accessibility and to go back to the human roots — […] a physically active lifestyle — to stay happy and healthy in the age of digitalization,” the researchers wrote.

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