A man and woman work out at home while watching an exercise videoShare on Pinterest
Exercising instead of looking at social media can improve your mood, researchers say. Morsa Images/Getty Images
  • Researchers say people who reduced their social media usage and instead engaged in physical activity reported feeling more satisfied, less depressed, and less stressed.
  • Experts say there are mental health benefits to both exercise and less screen time.
  • They say there are a number of ways to decrease social media usage, including turning off apps and letting friends know you are reducing your screen time.

Replacing just 30 minutes of daily social media time with physical activity, even for only two weeks, will make you feel happier, according to a new study.

A team from the Mental Health Research and Treatment Center at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany led by assistant professor Julia Brailovskaia, Ph.D., reported that participants who replaced social media with exercise felt more satisfied, less depressed, and less stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic than participants in a control group.

The positive effects of the two-week period lasted up to six months after the study was over, researchers said.

“Given that we don’t know for certain how long the coronavirus crisis will last, we wanted to know how to protect people’s mental health with services that are as free and low-threshold as possible,” Brailovskaia said in a statement.

“This shows us how vital it is to reduce our availability online from time to time and to go back to our human roots,” she added. “These measures can be easily implemented into one’s everyday life and they’re completely free – and, at the same time, they help us to stay happy and healthy in the digital age.”

The researchers recruited 642 volunteers and randomly assigned them to one of four groups of roughly equal size.

The first group reduced its social media consumption each day by 30 minutes. The second group increased physical activity by 30 minutes daily while continuing its regular social media use.

The third group combined both, reducing social media time and increasing physical activity. A control group didn’t change any behavior.

Participants were surveyed before and during the study as well as for six months afterward.

Researchers said the feeling of well-being, particularly when exercising regularly, increased with a reduction in social media, the use of which skyrocketed during the pandemic as people sought to stay connected.

Researchers said participants in all three non-control groups spent less time on social media. Six months after the intervention, the combination group engaged one hour and 39 minutes more each week in physical activity. The positive influence on mental health continued throughout the entire follow-up period.

Dr. Amy Gooding is a clinical psychologist with Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center, a national chain of mental wellness centers.

Gooding told Healthline social media’s hyper-connectivity to so many other lives gets in the way of our own happiness.

“All of this is impacting our ability to focus on our work and be truly present in our lives,” she said. “Users may be comparing themselves to other people’s lives, families, vacations, all while detaching from their family or personal life because they are on their phone, looking at social media.”

“Not only does this lead to decreased self-esteem, but it can also make individuals critical of themselves and their experiences,” Gooding added. “When people are staring at their phones, they are not interacting with other people or their environment. Constant scrolling during downtime can impact one’s ability to be comfortable being relaxed or still, with a quiet, calm mind. Taking a break from social media can help people be more comfortable with silence and with relaxation and can help people learn to be more engaged and present with the people and environment around them.”

Gooding noted that the benefits of physical activity on mental health are well established.

“Improvements in stress management, sleep, mood, and energy have all been seen in those who engage in 30 minutes of physical activity a day,” she said. “If you find that you are using social media to relieve stress, take a break from work to catch up with a friend’s activities, try put limits on your usage, and consider doing these things instead: Take your dog for a walk, play with your kids, have a dance party in your house, take a hike, call a friend and go for a walk, or go window shopping down your favorite downtown street.”

Edward Sturm is an engagement specialist and content producer who developed the 30 Day Challenge Builder platform.

He told Healthline involving others in a challenge or using time-management apps can help someone turn social media time into something more productive.

“Do a 30-day challenge with various forms of accountability,” Sturm recommended. “Put down money. For example, if you go on Facebook for more than an hour a day as measured by the RescueTime app, you pay $100 to a friend. Or use social pressure as the mechanism to make sure you don’t overdo it. Tell your friends you’re doing this challenge and have them keep you accountable for it.”

“The same goes for exercising. Burpees are one of the best full-body exercises that anybody can do anywhere,” Sturm said. “Do 50 burpees a day for a month in the same time you’d spend on social media and that month will be one of the most beneficial in your life. Use apps and friends to keep yourself accountable and you will achieve your goals.”

Dr. David Seitz, medical director for Ascendant Detox in New York City, told Healthline people finding themselves scrolling endlessly probably need a break. He offered a few tips to wean yourself from social media.

“Set a time limit for app use,” Seitz said. “If you are using an iPhone, you can set time limits for app usage through the screen time feature. You can set limits for specific apps, such as social media, and you will receive notifications when you are close to reaching your limit. Apps like Offtime, Social Fever, and Space can also help. Try starting with a 30-minute limit and then gradually increasing the time you allow yourself to be on social media each day.”

“Uninstall social media apps,” Seitz added. “This may seem like a drastic step, but it can be very effective. If you find that you cannot stick to time limits or use social media in moderation, try uninstalling the apps from your phone. You can always reinstall them later when you feel like you have more self-control. When you get used to not having the apps on your phone, you may realize that you don’t need them as much as you thought.”

“Find other things to do,” Seitz said. “When you feel the urge to mindlessly scroll through social media, try to find something else to do instead. As the latest research suggests, do some physical activity to reap the mental health benefits. Or try reading a book, taking up a new hobby, or spending time with friends and family. This is a good opportunity to re-teach yourself that there is more to life than social media.”

“Let your friends and family know,” Seitz advised. “If you are worried about missing out on important news or events, let your friends and family know you are taking a break from social media. This way, you won’t feel the need to constantly check your feed, and you can relax knowing that you will be updated when necessary.”