In so many ways our lives today are better than ever before. We live longer, we are better fed, and on average we work less and have more free time. But, it seems, there is also a price to pay. We are more prone to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stress, anxiety and depression. Another feature of modern living is the amount of time we spend sitting. In fact some of the most stressful activities we undertake, like driving, being interviewed, sitting exams, traveling in overcrowded trains or busses, all involve sitting. Is it just possible that the anxiety conditions that affect over 27 million people globally are linked to sedentary behavior?
Of course sedentary behavior isn’t just linked to work it’s also a feature of our free time. Just how much time we spend in front of a TV, playing electronic games, or simply not moving is difficult to judge, but it doesn’t take a genius to know we are a pretty sedentary bunch compared with a generation or two ago. Anyone who goes to the gym for a 40-minute workout may still be considered sedentary if they spend most of the remaining time sitting down. So what’s the link to anxiety?
Megan Teychenne, lead researcher at Deakin University’s Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research (C-PAN) in Australia, has published a systematic review of evidence associating sedentary behavior with anxiety. Nine studies specifically examining the issue were examined. In five of the studies an increase in sitting time was associated with increased risk of anxiety.
It boils down to a simple observational association that too much sitting, whether reading a book, traveling in a train, or work-related activities is bad for health. One extensive study of 800,000 people – found that people who sit the longest have a 49% increase in death from any cause.
Physical activity guidelines are somewhat prone to shifting trends but the consistent message has always been staying active is better for health. Perhaps part of the problem is that we now live in a time of looking for short cuts. There are, it seems, all sorts of barriers to exercise and so compromises for the ‘what’s the least I can get away’ generation are being made. It may not be enough and it may be that bursts of activity (such as a gym session) aren’t as effective as a day spent consistently having to get up and move around.
If you suffer with anxiety and you have a sedentary lifestyle there are things you can do. Try standing on the train. Take stairs. Set a reminder to get up and move every thirty minutes or so. Stand when you’re on the phone. Walk to speak to colleagues instead of emailing them. These small changes could make all the difference.
Teychenne, M., Costigan, S.A., Parker, K (2015) ‘The association between sedentary behavior and risk of anxiety: a systematic review.’ BMC Public Health 15(1)
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.