Sedentary behaviours like sitting or lying down are on the rise, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made this worse. Previous studies have linked these behaviours to increased physical health problems, but according to a new review from Western University, prolonged sedentary behaviour also has a negative impact on our perceived well-being and quality of life.
The review was published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
How does sitting affect our well-being?
While the links between a sedentary lifestyle and poor physical health are clear, the researchers behind the review were interested in learning whether sitting for long periods of time also affects our subjective well-being. In the field of psychology, subjective well-being measures our own feelings of happiness and satisfaction with our lives.
“Exploring these relationships is important, as different contexts of sitting — such as socializing versus screen time — may yield different feelings or judgments of subjective well-being,” the authors explained in an article for The Conversation.
To learn more, the authors searched for previous studies on the topic. They combined results from 46 articles that had examined sedentary behaviour and some aspect of subjective well-being in order to paint a broader picture of how these behaviours affect our quality of life.
Overall, the authors found that sedentary lifestyles were linked with lower measurements of subjective well-being. Those who spent more time sitting reported higher negative affects, and lower satisfaction with their lives, than those who lived more active lifestyles.
When the authors looked in more detail at different sitting-based activities, however, they found that context matters. Prolonged periods of screen time tended to decrease participants’ subjective well-being, but activities such as reading or playing instruments were linked with improved subjective well-being for study participants.
Interestingly, the authors also noted that study participants who found themselves sitting more than usual reported lower subjective well-beings, regardless of how active they were otherwise. For example, someone who spent only a few hours sitting each day may have still reported a low subjective well-being if this was more sitting time than they were used to.
Sedentary behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic
These findings are particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken a toll on the mental health and well-being of many Canadians. Reducing our time spent sitting could help to mitigate some of these negative impacts, as long as we carefully consider which types of sitting time are negatively affecting our own well-being.
“[N]ot all sitting is the same in terms of subjective well-being,” the authors emphasized. “So when people work towards reducing their sitting time, they should consider not just how much to reduce, but what kind to reduce.”
Of course, what works for one person may not work for another — not everyone enjoys sitting and reading, for example. And while previous studies have linked prolonged periods of screen time to lower well-being, others have shown that in moderation, screen time can actually reduce our psychological distress.
What’s more, the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected many people’s mental health. While more time spent sitting could exacerbate this, even those who have managed to stay active throughout the pandemic are likely feeling the negative effects of living through a global pandemic.
This is particularly true for essential workers who may not be sitting more than usual, but who have had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic firsthand.
Exercising and staying active can help
While reducing our time spent sitting won’t fix all of this, the authors suggest it as one way to improve our subjective well-being.
“[A]nyone, regardless of how much they normally sit or are physically active, may potentially benefit from sitting less.”
The benefits of exercise on mental health are well-documented, but symptoms of mental illness or low subjective well-beings can make exercising difficult. According to Catherine Sabiston, a professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, these symptoms can be a barrier to physical activity — but there are techniques that can help.
“It’s very hard to find a type of physical activity that you can engage in when you lack interest in most things,” Sabiston told U of T News. “On the flip side, there is uncontested evidence that physical activity is conducive to mental health.”
The key is finding an activity that works for you and that you enjoy, Sabiston says. The same is true for determining which types of sitting time are beneficial for your own mental health.
“The physical activity you are doing should be something that you enjoy,” Sabiston said. “If you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to continue to do it.”