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Even With Exercise, Sedentary Lifestyle Has Consequences for Mental Health

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Key Takeaways

  • Recent research found more time sitting had a negative impact on mental health.
  • Even with physical activity, the negative effect on mental health was not addressed unless sitting time was decreased as well.
  • Being young and female was associated with higher rates of depression.

A sedentary lifestyle has long been discouraged by healthcare providers due to its potential long-term negative physical impacts.

Now, a new study published in Sport Sciences for Health reinforces this advice while also showing how increased sitting during COVID-19 lockdown adversely impacted mental health.

Understanding the Research

This study surveyed 284 participants in the U.K. with online questionnaires, which assessed physical activity, sitting time, and mental health, and demonstrated that domestic physical activity and gardening were helpful. Finding ways to stand up and move your body is key.

Researchers found that when individuals were spending more than 8 hours a day sitting, even with 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity weekly, there were adverse mental health impacts.

Its predominantly female sample, cross-sectional design, and use of self-report were limitations of this study, as it does not allow for inferences to be made based on causality or generalizations with respect to gender.

The Importance of Behavioral Activation

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers, says, “The bottom line is we should try to be sedentary as little as possible and try to get out, exercise, and be outside on our feet as much as possible in order to improve our mental health.”

When not sitting, Lagoy notes that you are most likely doing something more healthy, which is why behavioral activation is recommended to boost moods. “We need to get outside more and be in nature and exercise, which will greatly improve our mental and physical health,” he says.

Lagoy says, “I tell my patients who spend a lot of time lying in bed who are very depressed to try to get outside, exercise more, and do things that make them happy. Once people force themselves to do things that bring happiness and spend time in the fresh air, they do notice much improvement in their mood. The actions we take have a huge effect on our mood.”

Julian Lagoy, MD

I suggest getting one of those desks that allows you to stand up while working. I also suggest taking breaks and walking around the block during those breaks or just walking around the house.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

Since this pandemic has forced everyone to stay inside more, Lagoy notes this study is especially relevant after the last year and a half. “It was interesting that in England during the lockdown they allowed people to go outside for an hour for exercise because they realize the importance that outside exercise has on physical and mental health,” he says.

Lagoy says, “Sitting down slows metabolism and can cause muscle atrophy. Sitting down also causes back problems if we do it too much or sit down with a bad posture. I suggest getting one of those desks that allows you to stand up while working. I also suggest taking breaks and walking around the block during those breaks or just walking around the house.”

Small Changes Are Encouraged

Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS, a mental health educator and author, says, “A new study strongly correlated amount of time sitting to adverse mental health. This study is vital to helping people regain a sense of control over their lives in general and mental health specifically.”

Especially during the increased stress of the pandemic, Peterson notes that it can be difficult to know how to begin to recover. “This study provides practical information about one specific factor that contributes to mental health difficulties, i.e., sitting, and a workable action step to begin to regain wellbeing, i.e. increasing physical activity,” she says.

Peterson says, “While so much of the pandemic was beyond everyone’s individual control and robbed people of the ability to engage in certain activities, everyone can do something to get up and move every single day in order to improve both mental and physical health.”

A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, and chronic stress, so Peterson explains how sitting for more than eight hours a day can, over time, decrease motivation, contribute to fatigue, make it difficult to manage anxiety and stress, etc. “This can become a downward spiral because left unchecked, stress, anxiety, and depression worsen and make it even more difficult to be active, which in turn further deepens mental health difficulties,” she says.

Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Trying to make too many changes at once, such as going from no physical activity during a typical day to exercising strenuously for an hour every day, is overwhelming, exhausting, and defeating.

— Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

When trying to switch from a sedentary to an even moderately active lifestyle, Peterson recommends setting small goals and action steps. “Trying to make too many changes at once, such as going from no physical activity during a typical day to exercising strenuously for an hour every day, is overwhelming, exhausting, and defeating,” she says.

From identifying personal reasons why you want to increase your physical activity to experimenting to find activities that you enjoy, Peterson recommends engaging mindfully. “Rather than ruminating about troubling thoughts, purposefully turn your attention to your experience,” she says.

When she worked in a school setting, Peterson notes that a common frustration and contributing factor to mental health challenges was student's perceived lack of control over their lives. “When students were able to step back and make little changes, like adding enjoyable physical activity, it helped them reduce stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms,” she says.

Peterson highlights how such a behavioral change can help individuals to feel empowered and hopeful about their personal future. “A positive action step can have direct, positive impacts on body, mind, and spirit that increases motivation and energy while gradually decreasing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and chronic stress,” she says.

What This Means For You

As this study demonstrates, increased time sitting has adverse impacts on mental health. Especially during the uncertainty of the pandemic, it was necessary to decrease sitting time and increase physical activity to see mental health benefits. It is more crucial than ever to address a sedentary lifestyle to improve both physical and mental health.

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  1. Pears M, Kola-Palmer S, De Azevedo LB. The impact of sitting time and physical activity on mental health during COVID-19 lockdownSport Sci Health. Published online June 10, 2021. doi:10.1007/s11332-021-00791-2