When mind wandering leads to actual wandering (or just physical movement)

Do you find your mind wandering more often than not? According to researchers at the University of Illinois, this may actually increase physical activity.

It has been known for some time that task-independent thought (otherwise known as mind wandering) may facilitate positive and negative results. The purpose of this specific study was to explore the relationship between mind wandering and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) with regard to affect and sleep.

Using phone based ecological momentary assessment, 33 college students responded to surveys such as:

  • In the past hour, were you thinking about something different than what you were doing?
  • How do you feel right now?
  • How was your sleep?
  • How much did you sleep?

Additionally, the participants wore an ActiGraph accelerometer to record the quality and duration of physical activity. This study lasted for a week, with 16 prompts per day.

The results were:

  • For those individuals that did not oversleep and had positive affect, the amount of mind wandering was positively related to the amount of physical activity.
  • If participants did oversleep and obtained more than 10 hours, there was less physical activity the next day and no correlation to mind wandering.
  • Sleep quality was unrelated to the amount of physical activity.

This experiment creates starting points for future studies regarding the interconnectedness of mind wandering, sleep, affect, and physical activity. The researchers now hypothesize that better sleeping habits will enable beneficial mind wandering, which will stimulate physical activity, which will then contribute to better sleep. Although this study found that sleep quality was unrelated to physical activity, which is counterintuitive, it was assessed via self report. They suggest using an objective measure of sleep quality in the future.

Fanning, J., Mackenzie, M., Roberts, S., Crato, I., Ehlers, D., & McAuley, E. (2016). Physical Activity, Mind Wandering, Affect, and Sleep: An Ecological Momentary Assessment. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, 4(3), 1-11.


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