Less time sitting down could mean better mental health, says science

Too much time sitting down isn't healthy for you physically and it also isn't great for your mental health according to research

Older man sits at a table looking sad
(Image credit: Getty)

The pandemic saw a sharp spike in how much time people spend sitting down. However, research has revealed just how large these numbers are and how a more sedentary lifestyle can affect people's mental health.

Many of us took up new hobbies like yoga or meditation, finding zen in the day by perching on a best yoga mat, practicing our downward dogs. Meanwhile, others took to YouTube to find home workout tutorials. Much of this was done at home where after completing a workout it was too easy to go flop on the sofa or bed. 

Researchers at the Wellbeing and Exercise Laboratory at Iowa State University knew that behaviors adopted during COVID-19 would stick with people long-term and sought to put this to the test.

So the team accumulated over 3,000 responses from people living across all 50 US states plus the District of Colombia to find out how much time the participants spent doing the following; sitting down, staring at screens, and exercising. 

They brought in clinical scales, which indicated any changes to the mental wellbeing of the participants. 

The results showed that those who were meeting the US Physical Activity Guidelines (2-2.5 hours of moderate to vigorous exercise each week) before the pandemic saw a 32% reduction in physical activity from when lockdown restrictions came into effect. And the same people fed back that they were feeling more depressed, anxious and lonely during this time.

The same team of researchers followed this up with a more recent study to see if the participants' exercise volume and mental health had changed since the original study. 

Jacob Meyer assistant professor of kinesiology at ISU and lead author of the paper revealed, "In the second study, we found that, on average, people saw their mental health improve over the eight-week period. People adjusted to life in the pandemic. 

Man runs through park

(Image credit: Getty)

"But for people whose sitting times stayed high, their depressive symptoms, on average, didn't recover in the same way as everyone else's."

However, the lead author did highlight that the study has found an association between sitting down for long periods and mental health but they aren't saying that you will face feelings of depression if you sit down longer than others. There could be other factors.

Nonetheless, sitting down more was a habit adopted by many and for some, this more sedentary lifestyle has continued into pre-pandemic living.

It can be defeating when you lose motivation to exercise but there are plenty of studies that prove the mental benefits that can come from adding manageable forms of exercise into your lifestyle. This 2014 study found that people who started walking or cycling to work instead of driving had improved their psychological wellbeing.

If you want to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting down, walking more is a great place to start. Walking to work, to the grocery store, or just around your local park or block will get you out moving more and surrounded by a different environment from your home.

We can help you find a pair of best shoes for walking if you feel like walking is a more sustainable physical activity for you to take up.

Jessica Downey

Jessica is an experienced fitness writer with a passion for running. Her career in journalism began in local news and she holds a Masters in journalism. Jessica has previously written for Runners World, penning news and features on fitness, sportswear and nutrition. 

When she isn't writing up news and features for Fit&Well covering topics ranging from muscle building, to yoga, to female health and so on, she will be outdoors somewhere, testing out the latest fitness equipment and accessories to help others find top products for their own fitness journeys. Her testing pairs up nicely with her love for running. She recently branched out to running 10Ks and is trying to improve her time before moving on to larger races. Jessica also enjoys building on her strength in the gym and is a believer in health and wellness beginning in the kitchen. She shares all of this on her running Instagram account @jessrunshere which she uses for accountability and for connecting with like-minded fitness lovers.