Story at a glance
- In March of 2020, many people lowered their amount of physical activity when coronavirus restrictions were put in place.
- A study of that time period found that people who sat more had increased depression, anxiety and loneliness.
- In the weeks that followed, a second study found that symptoms improved for some people but not as much for people who continued to spend more time sitting.
You’ve heard it before: sitting is killing us. The connection between sitting too much and our physical health is easy to see, but researchers are also asking if there is a connection to our mental health. Research from early in the coronavirus pandemic could give us some clues on how our behaviors like sitting or exercising could be affecting symptoms of depression and anxiety.
“Sitting is a sneaky behavior,” says Jacob Meyer, who is an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University and lead author of the paper, in a press release. “It’s something we do all the time without thinking about it.”
To do a comparison, Meyer first looked at the difference between pre-pandemic and early pandemic habits. “In March 2020, we knew COVID was going to affect our behavior and what we could do in lots of weird, funky ways that we couldn’t predict,” says Meyer. This led to questions about how being more sedentary could affect mental health.
For the study, they recruited 3,000 participants from each of the 50 states and D.C. The participants self-reported their activities like sitting, screen use and exercising. They also compared these activities to pre-pandemic times.
The team found that participants who were previously getting enough physical activity each week decreased their activity by 32 percent during the pandemic. These same people also reported feeling more depressed, anxious and lonely.
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That was a snapshot of the participants’ lives. In a second study, Meyer and collaborators followed participants over 8 weeks during April to June of 2020. “In the second study, we found that, on average, people saw their mental health improve over the eight-week period,” Meyer said. “People adjusted to life in the pandemic. 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, this connection doesn’t mean there’s a causal link. People who were more depressed could have chosen to sit more, or people who sat more became depressed, he explains. There could also be another underlying factor that the researchers were unaware of.
Overall, these studies could lead to more insights into how our daily habits affect our mental health. “I think being aware of some of the subtle changes we’ve made during the pandemic and how they might be beneficial or detrimental is really important as we look to the other side of pandemic life,” says Meyer.
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