Sitting more is linked with worse mental health, Iowa State study says. Light exercise can help

Isabella Rosario
Ames Tribune

As Americans spent more time at home in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, some studies have shown they spent more time sitting, too.

And, according to research from Iowa State University's Wellbeing and Exercise Laboratory, that extra sedentary time is associated with higher rates of depression.

It's not the first study to show a relationship between physical inactivity and worse mental health. But because the pandemic caused so many people to change their lifestyles at once, laboratory director Jacob Meyer said, the information gathered may help predict how future public health crises will impact people's well-being.

"It made sense for us to figure out, when things like this happen on such a large scale, how does that affect people's mental health?" Meyer said.

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Meyer and his team surveyed more than 3,000 adults from all 50 states and the District of Columbia between April and June 2020, asking them to report their physical activity on a weekly basis and compare it to their level of pre-pandemic movement. The researchers also calculated the participants' levels of depression and anxiety using clinical scales.

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On average, people's mental health gradually improved during those eight weeks as they adjusted to pandemic life, Meyer's research shows. But people who maintained high levels of sitting had less improvement in their depressive symptoms than people who were more active.

"What we were able to see was ... closer to real-time relationships between the behavior changes and the mental health changes," Meyer said.

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No causal conclusions can be made from the study's findings, Meyer said. It's possible that people who were more depressed sat more, or that people who sat more became more depressed. There may also be other factors at play that were out of the scope of the study.

And the study sample, which was recruited in part through Iowa State's alumni network, is not representative of the U.S. population, Meyer said. Participants were mostly white with high income and education levels. They also were not asked about their physical abilities, Meyer said, so the study's implications for people who cannot stand or walk are less clear.

"(Our recruitment methods) meant giving us this well-educated sample of folks who went to Iowa State ... and it turned out to be lots of predominantly white people from Iowa, plus smaller amounts of people in different categories," Meyer said.

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With those limitations in mind, it's still worth thinking about how sitting impacts mental health, he said.

In previous research, Meyer found that substituting sitting with light physical activity — like walking around during a phone call, or standing while cooking — was associated with short- and long-term psychological benefits.

"Even if we still have to sit for a long period of time, if we do it in briefer periods, that could be really useful for our stress levels," Meyer said.

He suggests thinking about your day in terms of "required sitting" and "discretionary sitting." Some tasks, like driving, necessitate sitting. But a Zoom meeting can be taken while on a walk.

"There are parts of our day in which we do lots of sitting, whether or not we realize it, that don't have to be seated activities," Meyer said.

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Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at irosario@gannett.com or on Twitter at @irosarioc.