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Health & Balance

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Everything I Know About Happiness I Learned from a Child

Lesson 2: Play Hard

That kids are so often on the move — scrambling up a jungle gym, hurling themselves into a game of dodgeball — is part of the reason they are so upbeat. The mood-enhancing effect of physical activity has been well documented: In one study, 9 and 10 year old children reported feeling happier after 15 minutes of moderate exercise than after passively watching a 15 minute video. An even shorter burst of exercise is enough to change an adult's state of mind, according to researchers at Northern Arizona University; they found that just 10 minutes of aerobic activity improves mood, increases vigor, and lowers fatigue in adults. And the benefits of exercise are lasting, says Edward McAuley, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology (the study of human movement) at the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign. He asked research subjects to engage in moderate activities, such as walking and stretching, three times a week, gradually increasing each session from 10 to 40 minutes. After five years, those who continued to be active were not only fitter, but happier. "Physical activity has a positive effect on people's perceptions of their own capabilities, which in turn increases their sense of wellbeing," McAuley says. "And this isn't about running marathons. Moderate, brisk activity can be just as effective in getting these results." Instead of simply adding treadmill time to your daily routine, opt for a kidstyle workout — the physical play that experts call "active leisure." Rather than plopping down in front of the television, invite your kids outside for a Frisbee toss or a run through the sprinklers. Take a walk with your spouse, play with your dog. Or follow Maureen Ahearn's lead: "I doubt that I would blast silly music and dance around the house if it weren't for my kids," she says. "That's a mood booster any day!"

Lesson 3: Listen to Your Body

"Sometimes my 3 year old son will tell me, mournfully, 'I just need to cry right now!'" says Adrienne Boxer, 32, of Portland, OR. "So I let him, and after his venting session, he's back to normal. Kids know when they need a good cry, a nap, or a snack." Adults can profit from reconnecting with that kind of natural self-regulation, says Lyubomirsky, especially when it comes to getting enough rest. "We focus on diet and exercise," she says. "But Americans get way too little sleep, and that's just as important." A University of Pennsylvania study found that people allowed to sleep only four and a half hours a night for a week felt sadder, angrier, and more stressed than people who got a full night's sleep (about eight hours). And an analysis of 56 sleep studies showed that sleep deprivation affects mood more than it affects either cognitive skills or physical performance.

So how does a busy mom get more (or at least better) sleep? First, get enough daily sunlight, since changes in light signal the brain to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. At night, make sure the kids' bedtime is at least two hours before yours. Don't exercise too close to bedtime. And while it may seem like a good idea to wait until the kids are asleep to motor through household chores, you'll pay in the long run with exhaustion and stress. Kids will choose a happy parent over a tidy house any day.

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