Prolonged sitting linked to elevated depression & anxiety; Study

By Arya M Nair, Intern Reporter
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COVID-19 Crisis
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Many people became more sedentary during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 as they followed stay-at-home orders or chose to self-isolate, according to a new study from Iowa State University (ISU).

The recently published research found people who continued to spend a higher amount of time sitting in the weeks were likely to have higher symptoms of depression. A closer investigation into this association could play a role in helping people improve their mental health.

As people adhered to stay-at-home orders or self-isolated during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, daily commutes turned into shuffles between the bedroom and the living room. Clicking Zoom links erased time spent walking to meeting rooms, and Netflix spilled into time otherwise dedicated to the gym.

Mr. Jacob Meyer, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and the Director of the Wellbeing and Exercise Laboratory at ISU, and his team looked at how physical activity and sedentary behaviors are related to mental health, and how the changes in those affect people’s thoughts, feeling, and perception of the world.

“Sitting is a sneaky behavior. It’s something we do all the time without thinking about it. In March 2020, we knew COVID-19 was going to affect our behavior,” said Mr. Meyer.

Mr. Meyer and a team of researchers received survey responses from more than 3,000 study participants from all 50 states and the District of Colombia. Participants self-reported how much time they spent doing activities, like sitting, looking at screens, and exercising, and how those behaviors compared to pre-pandemic times. Using standard clinical scales, they also indicated changes to their mental wellbeing.

Participants who fulfilled the US Physical Activity Guidelines of 2.5-5 hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week before the pandemic dropped their physical activity by 32 percent, on average, shortly after COVID-19-related restrictions went into effect. 

The same participants reported feeling more depressed, anxious, and lonely. But some of the participants who continued to spend a large portion of their day sitting experienced blunted mental health improvements.

Mr. Meyer stated that finding an “association” between sitting and mental health is not the same as saying more sitting causes depression. Mr. Meyer said it’s possible people who were more depressed sat more or that people who sat more became more depressed. Or there could have been some other factor that the researchers did not identify.

Mr. Meyer said both starting and stopping a habit is very difficult, even when someone wants to change their behavior, and recommended people should take breaks when sitting for long periods.

People working from home can try walking around the block before and after the workday to mimic their pre-pandemic commute, which Mr. Meyer said can benefit people physically and mentally, and help add structure to the day.

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