Background: Physical activity is believed to contribute to a positive outlook on life. However, a gender aspect appears to play a role.
Fact: A survey of students aged 16 to 25 conducted by HSE researchers reveals that sports participation makes young men happier more often, while young women experience this effect only from very intense physical exercise.
Assistant Professor of the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences Natalia Khorkina and Master's student in Economics Valeria Gritchina examined the relationship between physical activity and life satisfaction among young Russians aged 16 to 25 to gain a better understanding of the role exercise can play in young adults' subjective well-being. The researchers found that being physically active tends to contribute to a positive outlook on life, but mainly for men. The effect is less straightforward for women: only high-intensity exercise is likely to make them significantly happy. The paper is based on 2009–2019 data from HSE University's Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey (RLMS-HSE) consisting of a series of nationally representative surveys. The sample includes 2918 male and 3417 female students of universities, technical schools and colleges. The paper is published in Voprosy Statistiki.
Physical activity is known to improve well-being: it has a positive effect on perceived quality of life and contributes to life satisfaction. In Russia, few studies have so far examined the effect of physical activity on life satisfaction in young adults, even though habits and behaviour patterns developed at a young age can affect the rest of one's life.
Life satisfaction is defined as 'the degree to which a person positively evaluates the overall quality of his/her life as a whole'. The concepts of 'happiness' and 'subjective well-being' belong to the same category.
Research in other countries confirms the benefits of regular sports participation for subjective well-being. Student surveys in Germany, Ireland, the USA, and Croatia show that physically active young people are happier than their sedentary peers. Similar findings are reported in a cross-country study of the relationship between life satisfaction and health behaviour in the USA, Europe and Asia. Regular physical exercise has been shown to reduce stress, improve sleep, relieve fatigue, and generate positive emotions.
A few papers examine the relationship between the intensity of physical activity and life satisfaction. A survey of university students in Croatia found vigorous physical activity to be significantly associated with life satisfaction. A large-scale investigation based on a survey of university students from 24 countries concludes that moderate to high-intensity physical activity increases subjective life satisfaction, while sedentary behaviour lowers it.
Based on data from RLMS-HSE, the situation with physical activity as it relates to subjective happiness in Russia is as follows:
The proportion of physically active young men was consistently higher between 2009 and 2019 than that of physically active young women.
Between 2009 and 2016, the proportion of physically active university students grew from 65% male and 46% female respondents reporting participation in sports in 2009 to 76% male and 61% female respondents reporting it in 2016, but the trend began to decline by 2019.
As for subjective happiness, more than half of both male and female respondents stated that they were 'fairly satisfied' with their lives. The responses 'not at all satisfied' and 'not very satisfied' were chosen by only a few.
Between 2009 and 2019, the proportion of physically active young men reporting high subjective well-being was nearly always higher than the proportion of sedentary male respondents satisfied with their lives. In all these years, more than 60% of physically active young men reported positive life satisfaction. For young women, no apparent relationship was found between subjective happiness and physical activity.
Based on RLMS-HSE data, a sample of young people was selected to include university students who were not yet employed and had some leisure time for physical activity and sport participation. Respondents were considered physically active if they had participated in a sport or fitness activity, such as running, skating, skiing, gym machine workouts, brisk or speed walking, biking, swimming, football, hockey, and some others, at least 12 times during the previous year. Those that selected at least one of the options were assumed to be physically active.
To measure their subjective well-being, the respondents were asked to assess their life satisfaction by choosing one of five options ranging from 'not at all satisfied' to 'completely satisfied'.
The study authors had two initial hypotheses:
Physical activity contributes to higher levels of subjective well-being in both male and female students, other factors being equal.
More vigorous exercise is associated with higher life satisfaction.
These correlations were tested using regression analysis, where the dependent variable was life satisfaction on a scale from one ('not at all satisfied') to five ('completely satisfied’). The following variables served as explanatory factors:
Physical activity. The variable was coded as 1 if a respondent engaged in any of the listed activities at least 12 times during the previous year, and as 0 if not.
The intensity of physical activity (1) was a continuous variable expressed as the total number of hours per month spent by a respondent engaging in physical activity.
The intensity of physical activity (2) was a categorical variable formed from the values of the continuous variable divided into four categories by quartiles (low, moderate, high and very high).
Additional data: age, gender, place of residence, home ownership, self-assessed health status, body mass index, smoking, marital status, income, etc.
Men and women appear to prefer different types of physical activities, except for running, skating and skiing (combined in one category, these were chosen by 13% of respondents in the male and female groups) and walking, swimming and tennis (chosen by 1% to 8% in both groups).
In 2019, most young men participated in team sports, such as basketball, volleyball, football or hockey (27%), and in gym machine workouts (22%). Their female peers preferred walking (19%), with 14% choosing gym machines, and 16% participating in team sports. A specifically female combined category included dancing, aerobics, shaping and yoga and was chosen by 12% of young women.
As for exercise frequency and intensity, most respondents in both male and female groups reported exercising less than three times a week; 46.6% of women preferred light physical exercise, and 35.4% of men opted for moderate or high-impact activities. Only a small proportion of students (about 5% in both groups) practiced daily half-hour workouts. Engaging in physical exercise for less than 30 minutes a day was reported by 16.2% of young men and 13.4% of young women.
The hypothesis of a positive relationship between physical activity and happiness was confirmed only for men, for whom exercise correlated positively with life satisfaction. It was also found that for young men, physical exercise increased the likelihood of being satisfied with life and lowered that of being in the dissatisfied group.
The second hypothesis of a relationship between exercise intensity and subjective well-being was also supported mainly for men, for whom engaging in strenuous exercise appeared to increase life satisfaction. The same hypothesis was only partly confirmed for women, whose sense of happiness increased only from very intense physical activities.
The reason for a positive relationship between physical activity and life satisfaction in men may be that in addition to keeping fit, they raise their status among peers. Women appear to appreciate strenuous exercise for helping them achieve and maintain a healthy weight, which, in turn, contributes to a sense of wellbeing.
The researchers also examined the marginal effects of exercise intensity for men and women. Here are the findings:
The more intensely men exercise, the less likely they are to be dissatisfied with life and the more likely to have high levels of well-being.
Similarly, women engaging in strenuous physical activity are less likely to be among those with low life satisfaction and more likely to perceive their life positively.
More data was obtained through econometric analysis. Students' life satisfaction was found to decrease with age and to increase with bigger income and higher self-assessment of one's health status. Interestingly, young men in the provinces were likely to experience higher life satisfaction than their peers in the capital city.
The study suggests that programmes encouraging physical exercise, in addition to getting students to be physically active, can also contribute to their overall subjective well-being. Such programmes can be initiated at universities, colleges and technical schools to encourage students to be active rather than sedentary. In addition to keeping physical education classes in their curricula, schools and universities could provide spaces for students to participate in sport and fitness free of charge, as only an estimated quarter of all students have the opportunity to participate in physical activity where they study.
Measures to involve young people in physical activity also include sports events and competitions with awards for participants, and financial incentives, such as reimbursement for purchase of sportswear and equipment. Also helpful could be educational programmes for students about the importance of physical activity, perhaps featuring talks by celebrity athletes, the authors conclude.