The start of the COVID-19 pandemic brought drastic changes to our lifestyle. People had to stay at home, isolate and restrict social contact. Exercise sessions consisted of walking between the study and the bathroom, gym time was erased, and sitting and screen time increased dramatically.
Overall, our lives became more sedentary and we found ourselves sitting rather than being physically active. After initial lockdowns passed, however, those who continued to spend more time sitting during the months between April and June 2020 were more likely to suffer symptoms of depression. This is the finding of a study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.
“Sitting is a sneaky behavior,” said study lead author Jacob Meyer, assistant professor of Kinesiology at Iowa State University. “It’s something we do all the time without thinking about it.”
As the director of the Wellbeing and Exercise Laboratory at ISU, Professor Meyer and his team look at how physical activity and sedentary behaviors are related to mental health, and how changes to those influence the way people think, feel and perceive the world.
“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,” said Professor Meyer.
Meyer and a team of researchers recruited more than 3,000 participants from all 50 states and the District of Colombia, to take part in a survey of activity levels and mental health. The participants self-reported how much time they spent doing activities, like sitting, looking at screens and exercising, and how those behaviors compared to pre-pandemic times. Using standard clinical scales, they also indicated changes to their mental wellbeing (e.g., levels of depression, anxiety, feeling stressed and feeling lonely).
“We know when people’s physical activity and screen time changes, that’s related to their mental health in general, but we haven’t really seen large population data like this in response to an abrupt change before,” said Professor Meyer.
Previous analysis of the data set showed that participants who were meeting the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines (i.e., 2.5-5 hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week) before the pandemic, decreased their physical activity by 32%, on average, shortly after COVID-19-related restrictions first went into effect. The same participants reported feeling more depressed, anxious and lonely.
The current study aimed to find out whether the participants’ behaviors and mental health changed after the initial lockdowns ended and they were allowed to return to more active lifestyles. Participants filled out the same survey each week between April and June, 2020.
“In the second study, we found that, on average, people saw their mental health improve over the eight-week period,” said Professor Meyer. “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.”
People who still spent a large portion of their day sitting experienced less improvement in their mental health. Meyer emphasized that this was a correlational study and that finding an “association” between sitting and mental health does not necessarily imply causality.
“It’s certainly worthy of more investigation,” said Professor Meyer, adding that monthly survey data from June 2020 to June 2021 are intended to become publicly available soon. “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.”
Professor Meyer hopes that the results of the study will help people recognize that even a little bit of physical exercise or movement can improve mood and mental health. He encourages people to take breaks and walk around when sitting for a long time, or to take walks around the block to replace the pre-pandemic commute to work.
“If you’re no longer walking down the hall for in-person meetings, you can still incorporate that break from sitting by taking a short walk before and after your Zoom call,” said Professor Meyer. He stressed that even a short period of activity can benefit people physically and mentally, and help add structure to the day.