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Feeling anxious and depressed? Sit less and move more, study says

Haven't gotten up from your desk in the last hour? You're not the only one.
Tired and stressed businessman working with a laptop at home.
Sitting too much can have a negative impact on your mental health, a new study has found.Juanma Hache / Getty Images

As people adhered to stay-at-home orders or self-isolated during the first year of the pandemic, daily commutes became shuffles between the home office and the bedroom, and trips to the store were often replaced with online shopping. Overall people were sitting more and exercising less. 

recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry tracked the moods and behaviors of 2,327 participants across all 50 states over eight weeks to measure the consequences of suddenly becoming more sedentary and found that sitting for significant amounts of time and more often was associated with higher symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“Our key finding was that high sitting time across the eight weeks was associated with a worse improvement in depressive symptoms over time,” said Jacob Meyer, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the college of Human Sciences, Iowa State University and the study’s lead author. 

Meyer explained that as the pandemic began, it was clear that behaviors were likely to change as a result of lockdown measures and a dramatic increase in remote learning/working, so his team of researchers sought “to record these large population-level changes in response to this unprecedented societal event” in real time.

They found that in addition to people sitting for longer periods of time and more often and feeling more anxious and depressed as a result, the kinds of activities people engaged in while sitting changed as well. Meyer explained that different sedentary behaviors have different effects on mental health. “Passive sedentary behaviors such as browsing social media or watching television are most detrimental for mental health and were most influenced by the pandemic,” he said. In 2020, increases in such behaviors often replaced sedentary behaviors known to be better for mental health such as family gatherings or social activities such as playing a board game with friends or watching a film together.

Michael Otto, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University and the co-author of “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety,” said the Iowa State study is one of many studies with similar findings. “Population studies show a reliable correlation between sedentary status and increased rates of depression and anxiety,” he said, adding that both increased in turn during the pandemic. “General findings suggest that sedentary behavior increased with COVID along with a profound increase in depression and anxiety,” he said.  

Indeed, Ayse Yemiscigil, a postdoctoral researcher and instructor for the human flourishing program at Harvard University, said her meta analysis of 49 studies conducted on the topic similarly “found that physical activity protects against the emergence of depression and anxiety.” She lamented that when public health officials encourage people to exercise, the predominant discourse refers to the physical health benefits of being active when, in reality, the mental health benefits of exercise are just as important. “My recommendation to people who want to exercise and those who want to encourage people to be active is to focus on the objective of improving mental health and well-being through physical activity,” she said.  

Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, an associate professor in the department of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University, co-authored another recent study that similarly measured how sedentary behaviors affect mental health and discovered “an unforgiving cycle” prevalent in 2020 and 2021.  “This pandemic has decreased mental health while making it more difficult for people to maintain their physical activity levels,” she said. “This, in turn, further hurts their mental health, because it makes them less likely to be active, and then the cycle repeats itself.”  

One of the ways exercise improves feelings of depression and anxiety is by releasing serotonin, often called the “happy hormone,” but Otto says physical activity modulates a number of other neurotransmitters that are also known to ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. “It is clear from clinical trials that programmed exercise can treat both depression and anxiety and improve resilience to stress,” he said. 

Haynes-Maslow had a similar take: “Physical activity can help the body release certain hormones such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin,” she said. “These hormones can help regulate moods and improve mental health. Mental health experts believe that having a consistent exercise routine is helpful when treating anxiety and other mood disorders.”

And while the pandemic has certainly created some obstacles in maintaining a consistent exercise routine, the experts had some helpful tips.

“Even a little bit of exercise can help,” Haynes-Maslow said. “If you’re time-limited, try fitting some type of movement into your day by parking farther away from a store when you’re running errands, taking stairs instead of an elevator, or simply doing indoor exercises such as jumping jacks, jogging in place, yoga or other no-cost activities.” She also suggested that having an “accountability partner” to exercise alongside can be a helpful motivator to get off the couch. 

Ivo Vlaev, a professor of behavioral science at Warwick Business School in the United Kingdom suggested that some people simply need a gentle reminder to stand up and move from time to time within the comfort of their own home. “A timer on your smartphone that runs out every 30 or 60 minutes, prompting to take a break from sitting, or a sticky note on your desktop computer reminding you to stretch for a minute or two every 30 minutes” can be helpful, he said.

“Paying attention to the mood gain, which often happens within a half hour of exercising can help keep people motivated” by recognizing the benefits to one’s mental health, offered Otto.  

“We know movement improves mental health and that even brief bouts of exercise such as a walk around the block can be meaningful,” Meyer said. “Remember that every step counts.”