Mental health benefits of replacing social media with exercise

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According to a study, spending less time on social media and more time exercising can improve emotional well-being and reduce stress. Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
  • Replacing 30 minutes of social media use a day with physical activity can improve emotional well-being and reduce stress, according to German researchers.
  • The benefits of exercise persisted for up to 6 months after their study ended.
  • Participants who reduced their use of social media and exercised more experienced greater happiness and less stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Reduced social media use is also correlated with less tobacco use.

Social media usage has exploded with COVID-19 lockdowns and contact restrictions. Millions of people have taken to Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and other platforms to escape feelings of isolation, anxiety and despair.

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

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

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

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

The Public Health Journal recently published these results.

The study authors noted that mental health “consists of two interrelated but distinct 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 “the depressive symptoms and addictive tendencies of EMS”.

Medical News Today discussed this study with Dr. Sheldon Zablow, author and nutritional psychiatrist. He did not participate in the research.

Asked about the effects of social media on mental health, Dr. Zablow said:

“If activities interfere with the usual age-appropriate stages of economic self-sufficiency, socialization, or health maintenance, they are detrimental. Activities could be alcohol consumption, substance use, food choices, exercise choices, or entertainment choices, especially social media.

Dr. Zablow warned that excessive use of social media weakens interpersonal social bonds, which can have a negative impact on mental health.

DTM also spoke with Dr. David A. Merrill, adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, regarding the current study. He did not participate in the research.

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

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

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

“I think [that the authors are] demonstrate causally that you both need to be aware of the need to limit the self-soothing aspect of using social media, and that you also need to have alternatives, so you need to have another way to bring joy in your life, and especially during the pandemic.

As a psychiatrist, Dr. Zablow emphasized that “the essential part of any recommended treatment program is exercise. Psychotherapy and, if necessary, 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 anxiety molecules”.

Therefore, more exercise can boost mental health, while less activity due to social media overuse can reduce healthy brain chemistry.

Dr. Brailosvskaia and colleagues reasoned that a “conscious and controlled reduction in time spent on EMS together with an increase in time spent in physical activity could causally reduce the negative mental health consequences of the COVID situation. -19″. They also thought that combining the two interventions might amplify this effect.

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

Additionally, the scientists expected their experiment to reduce stress caused by COVID-19 and decrease 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 people, the physical activity (PA) group had 161, a combined group had 159, and a control group had 160.

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

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

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 after the experiment.

Dr. Brailosvskaia and her team found that their interventions helped people reduce the time they spent with SM.

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

Additionally, participants reported having a decrease in emotional connection to social media.

All interventions also encouraged more physical activity. “Six months later, our participants had improved their baseline weekly physical activity time by 26 minutes in the SM group, 40 minutes in the AP group, and 1 hour 39 minutes in the combined group,” the authors wrote.

Even the control group increased their activity by 20 minutes.

Dr Merrill was impressed with the ‘striking results of the study with the combination of reduced social media and increased physical activity’. He agreed with the idea that EMS restrictions need a complementary activity that brings joy or a sense of accomplishment.

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

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

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

The study did not take into account the form of EMS used by the subjects or specify the type of physical activity performed by the participants. The researchers hope that future work will focus more on these factors.

Dr. Brailosvskaia’s research suggests that modest changes in EMS and physical activity could help protect and improve mental health in a practical and affordable way.

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

“Once in a while, it’s important to consciously limit your online accessibility and get back to your human roots — […] a physically active lifestyle – to stay happy and healthy in the age of digitalization,” the researchers wrote.