NOV 11, 2021 4:27 AM PST

In the Immortal Words of Bob Marley, "Get up! Stand Up!" For Your Mental Health

WRITTEN BY: Mia Wood

March 2020: The world shut down, and a lot of us took a seat. For a long time. When we weren’t sitting on a chair in front of a computer monitor, we were parked on the sofa watching Netflix’s entire catalog. According to new research from kinesiologist Jacob Meyer of Iowa State University’s Wellbeing and Exercise (WellEx) Laboratory, such sedentary behavior is associated with increased symptoms of depression and other mental health troubles.

Meyer’s current research is a longitudinal follow-up a 2020 study, which found an average 32% drop in physical activity immediately after lockdown. With so many people suddenly finding themselves in this strikingly unique situation, Meyer was able to generate a lot of before-and-after data about physical activity.

Research participants in that first study completed surveys about their activity levels before and immediately after the pandemic struck. Those who reported meeting U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines of 2.5 to 5 hours of “vigorous” physical activity per week prior to the pandemic were considerably less active once their usual routines were suddenly halted. Participants in that study also reported increases in feelings of depression, anxiousness, and loneliness.

Physical activity has already been associated with better mental health than is a sedentary lifestyle. What Meyer wanted to establish in the new study is how that association is impacted over time. More specifically, Meyer looked at how people adjusted to pandemic life. Participants from all 50 states completed the same weekly surveys for 8 weeks between April and June, 2020. “In the second study,” Meyer reports, “we found that on average, people saw their mental health improve over the eight-week period.” That adjustment included resumption of physical activity. On the other hand, those who continued to sit for long periods throughout the day did not adjust well. “[F]or people whose sitting times stayed high,” Meyer says, “their depressive symptoms, on average, didn’t recover in the same way as everyone else’s.”

Meyer stressed that the studies note associations between physical activity, sedentariness, and mental health, not causality. It may be, for example, that someone sits more as a result of depression, rather than that the sitting itself results in depression. Meyer also noted that some other unknown element is the causal factor of prolonged sitting or depression. But, since we already know that physical activity boosts mood, if you’re not already in motion, it’s worth it to start moving.

Sources: Neuroscience NewsEnvironmental Research and Public HealthFrontiers in Psychiatry

About the Author
  • I am a philosophy professor and writer with a broad range of research interests.
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