Sitting Too Much Is Making Us More Depressed

by Elaine Roth
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I spend most of the day moving. Between teaching Pilates and solo parenting two kids, I’m almost always moving or standing or otherwise active. (The only time I sit down is when I write, and that usually happens before the sun is up or after the sun goes down.)

The pandemic, at least the very early days of the pandemic, changed that. Like so many of us, I stopped moving. The classes I taught switched to virtual. Rather than walking the studio, spotting clients, demonstrating, I was sitting and talking into a screen. With my kids home, and engaged in their own virtual worlds, there was no need to run from activity to activity—there was just more sitting. Even trips to the grocery store, all that walking up and down the aisles, disappeared in favor of sitting and clicking “add to order” on Instacart. (Which is undoubtedly a privilege that wasn’t afforded to all.)

I could feel the change in my body after all that sitting—physical changes, yes, but also mental. I felt more anxious and more stressed. Much of that is because we were (are) living in wildly stressful times. However, an undeniable portion of the havoc wreaked on my mental health stemmed from a change in my physical activity.

More Sitting Leads To More Stress, Depression, and Loneliness

Research conducted by Jacob Meyer, director of the Wellbeing and Exercise lab at Iowa State University, confirmed my experience. There is a correlation between more sitting and more stress. The study found that more screen time and less exercise during the earliest days of the pandemic was linked to higher levels of stress, depression, and feelings of loneliness.

A follow-up study found that the mental health of folks who continued to stay mostly sedentary as we all adapted to the reality of the pandemic didn’t improve. The study authors wrote, “Rapid changes in sitting patterns (e.g., due to a pandemic) may have lasting effects on depressive symptoms.”

With a pandemic winter, and potentially more time at home, on the horizon, that’s not exactly good news. Fortunately, even gentle movement around the house can make a difference for mental health, according to Meyer’s first study.

“We know consistently that the more people are active, the more that they exercise, the better their mental health is,” says Meyer.

Tips To Get More Movement In


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The first thing to remember is movement is movement. The best kind of movement is the movement that you’ll do, that’ll get you up from sitting. Which means, if you hate running, don’t run. If you hate waking up early, don’t wake up early. There’s no one-size-fits all movement, and no form of exercise is superior to another.

That being said, once you find a time that works for you—schedule it. Make it consistent, put it in your planner, include it on your daily agenda.

Also, start with small levels of activity, especially if you haven’t done much or anything. Don’t put pressure on yourself to suddenly run a 5K or hop into a virtual ninety-minute yoga class. Meyer’s suggests folks “start small,” and notes that “going from no activity at all to even a little bit of activity is going to get some of the biggest health effects.” A walk around your home office is a great place to start.

Speaking of a walk around your home office—try to sneak in little movements like that throughout the day. Walk between rooms, walk while you’re on the phone, walk between meetings—all of those steps will add up. Meyer’s even encourages folks to do a “virtual commute.” He encourages folks to walk around the house before the start of the work day and after the work day, as if you’re commuting. (As an added incentive, a 2014 study found that walking increases creativity by about 60 percent.)

Even if you’ve done your workout for the day, make an effort to stand at least once an hour. Set a timer to help you remember to stand. If you haven’t done a workout, consider using those hourly reminders to complete a quick, five-minute workout. By the end of the day, those eight (or so) sets of five-minute workouts add up. “That’s 40 minutes that you did something, and it wasn’t a 40-minute chunk that you had to pull out of your day,” says Molly McDonald, a certified personal trainer with Corporate Fitness Works.

Making movement social will also help get you started and keep momentum. Plan to get moving with a friend or check-in with a friend to remind each other to walk. Or, get your kids involved. If they’re anything like mine, they won’t forget that you promised them a family walk or one-on-one basketball game at the end of the workday.

Don’t forget chores, too. Taking out the garbage, washing dishes, vacuuming—all require standing (rather than sitting) which gets you up, if not also moving.

When (if ever) you’re ready to up the intensity, no need for fancy workout equipment. Cans, water bottles, and other weighted objects are great substitutes for traditional weights. (Be careful to avoid taking on too much weight too fast.) Bodyweight exercises like squats and lunges (or my personal favorite: Pilates!) are also a good choice for folks who want to up the intensity without adding props.

Keep in mind that the goal of adding movement to your day is to boost your mental health. (If there’s anything the challenges of the past year have taught us, it’s that supporting our mental health is as important as supporting our physical health.) The goal is not to make your body smaller. All bodies are good bodies. All bodies deserve movement that feels good for them, and it’s important to remember that not all bodies can move in all these ways. But finding movement that works for you and feels good for your body is a great tool to boost your mental health, especially as we race toward another pandemic winter.