A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry has found new evidence that too much sitting can negatively impact mental health. The study found that while mental health tended to improve among US residents in the aftermath of the initial COVID-19 outbreak, those who spent more time sitting showed slower recovery from depressive symptoms.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, mental health professionals have expressed concern about citizens’ psychological health. One way the crisis might impact mental health is by increasing sedentary behavior, with citizens spending much more time at home in an effort to follow public health guidelines.
Notably, the first wave of the coronavirus was unexpected, requiring rapid changes in people’s behavior. Researchers Jacob D. Meyer and his colleagues recognized an opportunity to explore how sudden changes in sedentary behavior within a short period of time would impact mental health. The researchers used a longitudinal research design involving repeated measurements over an 8-week period during the pandemic. This allowed them to assess how changes in sitting behavior would relate to changes in mental health over time.
US residents completed an initial survey in April 2020, shortly after a state of emergency was declared in the United States due to COVID-19. The respondents were then invited to partake in eight follow-up surveys one week apart. In total, 2,327 participants between the ages of 18 and 74 completed at least two surveys and were included in the analysis. Three separate questions asked respondents how many minutes per day they typically spend in front of a screen, sitting, and engaging in moderate or vigorous exercise. Respondents also completed measures of anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms, and positive mental health.
The results revealed that participants’ mental health tended to improve over time, suggesting that their initial reactions to the pandemic faded as public health measures were put in place and people adjusted to the “new normal.” However, time spent sitting appeared to hinder improvement in depressive symptoms.
By week four, participants who scored in the top 10% for sitting time had significantly higher depression scores than those who scored in the lowest 10% for sitting time. By week eight, this difference grew so that those who sat the most were even farther behind those who sat the least in terms of depressive symptom improvement. “High levels of sitting may have limited the improvement in depressive symptoms that occurred across time,” the study authors say, “and continued high sitting time may be a key behavioral risk factor for lasting depressive symptoms.”
At baseline, those with the highest levels of screen time had significantly higher depression scores compared to those with the lowest levels of screen time — but these differences disappeared by week 3. Physical activity was not found to impact depressive symptoms, anxiety, or positive mental health either at baseline or across time. The researchers note that the number of inactive participants was low, which may have limited the statistical power to detect differences.
Previous studies suggest that depression increased during the pandemic, and Meyer and his team say their study suggests that too much sitting dulled recovery from these heightened depressive symptoms. They say it will be important for future studies to examine the relationship between sitting behavior and mental health over the long term, to see whether the relationship weakens or strengthens over time. Strategies to limit the adverse impact of sitting on depression may be to reduce overall time spent sitting or to break up sitting time with other activities.
The study, “High Sitting Time Is a Behavioral Risk Factor for Blunted Improvement in Depression Across 8 Weeks of the COVID-19 Pandemic in April–May 2020”, was authored by Jacob D. Meyer, John O’Connor, Cillian P. McDowell, Jeni E. Lansing, Cassandra S. Brower, and Matthew P. Herring.