Less sitting is good for your mental health

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Researchers have found that if we break up periods of sitting and being sedentary it can improve our physical and mental health.

We all know that TV binges aren’t good for our mental health, but we can halve the negative impacts by getting up more often and moving between episodes or in ad breaks.

About the research

A new study from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and international collaborators which examined data from more than 40,000 people, shows for the first time that breaking up sitting in our leisure time can help reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety.

Study co-author and Head of Physical Activity research at the Baker Institute, Professor David Dunstan said that the mechanisms driving both physical and mental health benefits could be the same.

“We are exploring the idea that getting up and moving more helps to reduce inflammation in the body, which can benefit both physical and mental health,” Professor Dunstan said.

“Blood flow is likely to increase and your body becomes more efficient at delivering glucose to the brain.”

The study collected data from 40,550 Swedish workers between 2017 and 2019, with participants indicating how often they typically spent sitting in their leisure time, and the frequency with which they interrupted this. They also reported on any depression or anxiety symptoms.

What the data revealed

Compared to those who never or rarely interrupted their sitting time, those who reported at least some interruptions had a lower risk of experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms. Those who indicated that they interrupted their sitting ‘very often’ reported half the rate of depression and anxiety symptoms.

The paper — published in the journal Translational Psychiatry — proposed the best way to beat ‘bingeing blues’ was to stand up and move after every 30 minutes of sitting.

“In real life, this could be as simple as just standing up from the chair or couch, but ideally might involve simple resistance activities like half squats, arm or back stretches, or a brief walk — even just a few steps,” Professor Dunstan said.

The average Australian adult spends about nine hours per day sitting, a significant proportion of which is done during leisure time and in front of the TV.

“The changing landscape of TV consumption, with the trend towards streaming services and away from free-to-air channels with ad breaks, also means the average viewer has even fewer prompts to get up off the couch and a never ending supply of content to keep them there,” Professor Dunstan said.

“Our recent work indicates sedentary behaviours like watching TV that are passive in nature and mainly occur in leisure time are more detrimental to mental wellbeing than mentally-active sedentary behaviours, such as reading or activities that involve problem solving and deliberate mental effort.

“Given the high levels of depression and anxiety in the community, and how much time the average person spends sitting down, it’s important to examine how we can reduce those effects.

“We also found the potential mental health benefits of interrupting sedentary behaviour may be greater in those who are highly sedentary during leisure-time, the people our previous research has shown are most at risk of depression and anxiety.”

Move to improve your mood

To optimise mental health benefits:

  1. Get up during ad breaks or set reminders during streaming to introduce walking breaks or some brief exercises to get the muscles moving. A good guide is to break up sitting time every half hour.
  2. Swap some mentally passive sedentary activities with more mentally active ones – try reading or playing a game, instead of just watching TV.
  3. Do household tasks such as cooking, ironing or cleaning while watching TV so it isn’t always sedentary and requires some cognitive engagement.
  4. Make a conscious effort to incorporate exercise into your day to break up large amounts of mentally-passive sedentary activities.

Looking for more tips how to be more physically active check out our factsheet

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