During the pandemic, people spent significantly more time sitting down due to isolation or remote working – but what is the mental health impact?
Recently, studies have looked at how COVID will shape public health responses in the future. The UK’s National Health Service is burnt out, struggling to meet backlogs in primary care. Long COVID is a marker of continued suffering for a significant amount of those who survive the virus, and some countries still can’t access the vaccine that will save their lives.
But some countries in the Global North are lucky enough to have something resembling normality at this point in time. These countries, emerging dazed, are now looking to the more invisible ways through which COVID shaped human health.
In contrast, the mental health effects of a more sedentary life are not as much of a global priority. A recent study on the brain found that talking walks literally changes the structure of the human brain, creating more potential for happiness.
Being allowed an hour of outdoor exercise on a daily basis was a key part of the UK government’s strategy in the first national lockdown that began in March 2020.
Now, researchers from the University of Huddersfield are working on the mental health impacts of sitting far more than normal.
‘50% were sitting for more than eight hours a day’
“I started from position of the government’s allowance of an hour’s outdoor activity during lockdown, which recognises the importance of exercise on mental and physical health,” says Dr Liane Azevedo, author on the report.
The other two authors are Dr Susanna Kola-Palmer and Dr Matthew Pears.
“People looked forward to that exercise once a day for a bit of fresh air.
“Although our sample of nearly 300 was very active, they were sitting for longer periods with over 50% sitting for more than eight hours a day. We found that sitting time, together with some demographics and pre-existing health conditions, were the main variables to negatively influence mental health and wellbeing.
How much exercise is needed to balance that?
Dr Azevedo further commented: “Other studies have shown that if you sit for longer than eight hours, in order to compensate the negative effect of sedentary behaviour on physical health outcomes you need to exercise for longer. Around 60 minutes is ideal, but this is longer than the 30 minutes that is generally recommended as a minimum for daily exercise.
“Reducing sitting time has a positive effect on mental health. We recommend that together with increase in physical activity, public health should encourage reduction of sitting time for mental health benefits.”
What kind of exercise counts?
Dr Azevedo said: “It is not just going to the gym.
“Just going for a walk specially in green areas is really important, any type of moderate activity does have benefits. We also noticed from our study that leisure and gardening are activities that help both physically and mentally.
“We want to develop an intervention based on these findings, to focus on the decrease of sedentary behaviour as well as increase in physical activity to promote benefits on mental health.”