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Mental Health

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  • It has been established that excess sitting may lead to physical health problems, but studies show it may harm your mental health as well
  • Women who sit more than seven hours per day were found to have a 47 percent higher risk of depression than women who sit four hours or less
  • Government workers who spent more than six hours of their workday sitting experienced more psychological distress than those who sat less than three
  • Children who habitually spend long hours in front of computer or TV screens experience more mental problems, including poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and diminished happiness
  • The key to minimizing the effects of sitting is to stand up often, optimally every 15 minutes, and perform a different exercise for 30-60 seconds
 

Prolonged Sitting Can Lead to Depression and Other Mental Health Problems

August 07, 2014 | 262,228 views
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By Dr. Mercola

There is a growing scientific consensus that the more time you spend sitting, the shorter and less healthy your life may be. Excessive sitting, such as at a desk or in front of the TV, significantly impacts your cardiovascular and metabolic function.

This raises your risk for heart attack, type 2 diabetes, insomnia, arthritis, and certain types of cancer—and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Sitting for extended periods of time increases your risk for premature death. This is especially concerning given the fact that you may be vulnerable to these risks even if you are a fit athlete who exercises regularly.

One recent study correlated sitting time and TV viewing time with increased fibrinogen and C reactive protein, which helps explain this increased cardiovascular risk.1

Science now shows us that temporary vigorous exercise cannot compensate for the damage incurred by prolonged daily sitting.

It's becoming increasingly clear that intermittent movement is critical for health and longevity, even more so than a regular workout routine. In order to be healthy, you have to get up off your behind—and you have to do it often.

Sitting: Your Brain's Mortal Enemy

Not only is excessive sitting detrimental to your physical health, but studies show it does nothing good for your mental health either.2, 3 Just like the rest of your body, your brain depends on strong blood flow, good oxygenation, and optimal glucose metabolism to work properly.

When you sit, your skeletal muscle fibers aren't contracting, particularly the large muscles of your lower limbs. When this occurs, they require less fuel, and the surplus glucose accumulates in your bloodstream and contributes to obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

An Australian study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, set out to determine if prolonged sitting and lack of exercise have an effect on depression. Researchers analyzed the habits of nearly 9,000 women, ages 50 to 55, over several years' time.

Women who sat for more than seven hours a day were found to have a 47 percent higher risk of depression than women who sat for four hours or less per day.

Women who didn't participate in ANY physical activity had a 99 percent higher risk of developing depression than women who exercised. The findings were crystal clear: excessive sitting and lack of exercise resulted in an increase in depression symptoms among middle-aged women.4

Researchers concluded that increased physical activity could alleviate existing depression symptoms and possibly even prevent future symptoms. And reducing the amount of daily sitting time may relieve existing symptoms of depression.

Sitting Increases Psychological Distress, Decreases Feelings of Well-Being

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions about the mental effects of spending too much time on your derriere. British researchers reviewing data from a national wellness project found that spending leisure time on the computer and watching TV were associated with reduced feelings of well-being.5

The work habits of more than 3,000 government workers in Australia were studied, and those who spent more than six hours seated per workday were more likely to score higher in psychological distress than those sitting fewer than three hours, regardless of how active they were outside of work.6

Why does sitting have such a negative impact on your mental health? Psychology Today may be on to something:7

"Some of the psychological effects of sitting may be rooted in what people tend to do while in their chairs. They may stare at an electronic screen, rather than connecting emotionally with others. They may watch mindless TV shows, rather than engaging intellectually with the world. Or they may multitask ceaselessly—flitting between work emails, personal texts, social media, and the Internet—rather than honing their attention."

Spending excess time at your computer may lead to insomnia and depression. A British study involving 25,000 people found that those working long hours in front of computers complained of feeling depressed, anxious, and reluctant to get up for work in the mornings. They found that working just five hours per day in front of a computer screen is enough to produce depression and insomnia.8

Sitting in Front of a Computer Is Bad for Your Child, Too!

It's already well established that insufficient physical activity is significantly contributing to our childhood obesity epidemic. But if your child spends a lot of time in front of an electronic screen, his or her mental health may also be at risk. In one UK study, excessive screen time produced negative effects on children's self-worth, self-esteem and level of self-reported happiness.

The children who spent four hours or more computer gaming reported lower levels of well-being than their peers who spent less time in this activity. Children spending more time in front of computer screens also experience more emotional distress, anxiety, depression, and behavioral difficulties.9

It is very difficult if not impossible to refrain from sitting altogether, given today's lifestyle. However, the good news is that there are some excellent strategies to help counter the effects of sitting—and they are not that difficult to learn and incorporate into your daily routine. So don't take this news sitting down!

Defy Gravity with Intermittent Movement

Download Interview Transcript

Last summer, I interviewed Dr. Joan Vernikos,10 former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, about the hazards of chronic sitting and how to avoid succumbing to its effects. Space medicine has done quite a bit to help us understand why sitting is so detrimental. Dr. Vernikos was in fact one of the primary doctors assigned to keep NASA astronauts' health from deteriorating in space.

She explains that the human body deteriorates at a faster speed in anti-gravity situations, and as it turns out, sitting for an extended period of time actually simulates a low-gravity environment. On the other hand, physical movements such as standing up or bending down, increase the force of gravity on your body. Anti-gravity environments speed up cellular deterioration, so the key is to disengage from this low anti-gravity situation as much as possible by standing up and moving about. A reasonable goal is to get up every 15 minutes whenever you are engaged in prolonged seated activities.

Once involved in a project, it is admittedly rather difficult to remember to do this, so I have found an alarm is helpful. There are many options for this in the way of free phone apps or even fitness bands that will gently remind you to stand up and move after prolonged inactivity.

Quick and Easy Workplace Workouts

The easiest strategy is to merely stand up, and then sit back down. But evidence suggests you'd be wise to go a little further—especially if you only exercise a few times a week or not at all. There are plenty of ways to increase your movement at work.

The following videos, featuring Jill Rodriguez, offer a series of helpful intermittent movement beginner and advanced exercises you can do right at your desk. For a demonstration of each technique, please see the corresponding video in the two tables below. I suggest taking a break to do one set of three exercises, anywhere from once every 15 minutes to once per hour. For even more suggestions, please refer to our previous article on intermittent movement.

Technique #1: Standing Neck-Stretch: Hold for 20 seconds on each side.

Technique #2: Shoulder Blade Squeeze: Round your shoulders, then pull them back and pull down. Repeat for 20-30 seconds.

Technique #3: Standing Hip Stretch: Holding on to your desk, cross your left leg over your right thigh and "sit down" by bending your right leg. Repeat on the other side.

Technique #4: The Windmill: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, then pivot your feet to the right. Push your hip out to the left. Raising your left arm skyward, and your right arm toward the floor, lower your body toward the floor while looking up, and then raise your torso back to standing position. Repeat on the other side.

Technique #5: Side Lunge: Starting with your feet together, take a medium step sideways, and bend down as if you're about to sit. Use your arms for balance by reaching out in front of you. Return to starting position, and repeat 10-20 times. Repeat on the other side.

Technique #6: Desk Push-Up: Place hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart on your desk. Come up on your toes to make it easier to tip forward. Do 10 repetitions.

Technique #7: Squat to Chair: With your feet shoulder-width apart, sit down, reaching forward with your hands, and stand back up in quick succession. Do 15-20 repetitions.

Technique #8: Single Leg Dead Lift: Place your right hand on your desk, and place your weight on your right leg. Fold your torso forward, while simultaneously lifting your left leg backward. Do 10 repetitions on each side.

Technique #9: Mountain Climber: Get into a push-up position on the floor. Pull your right knee forward to touch your right wrist or arm, then return to push-up position. Repeat on the other side. Try to pick up the pace, and do 20 quick repetitions.

Standing Neck Stretch

Shoulder Blade Squeezes

Standing/Seated Hip Stretch

Windmill

Side Lunge

Push up

Squat to Chair

Single Leg Dead Lift

Mountain Climber

Advanced Intermittent Movement Routine

The video below from Dr. Eric Goodman is just over 4 minutes, but you can break it up into 30-60 second sections and perform it on one of your breaks.


Below are some more advanced suggestions from fitness expert Lisa Huck. These movements are the ones I'm currently working with to interrupt my sitting. I suggest bookmarking this article so you can easily find all of these helpful videos, demonstrating each movement. Again, ideally you'll want to do at least one of these exercises every 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can combine two or three in a three-minute break once or twice every hour.

The more frequently you get out of your seat, the better, because the frequency is the most important aspect. Based on double-blind research conducted by Dr. Vernikos, the minimum number of times you need to interrupt your sitting in order to counteract its cardiovascular health risks is in the neighborhood of 35 times per day.

Her research clearly shows that sitting down and standing up repeatedly for 35 minutes does NOT have the same effect as standing up once, 35 times over the course of the entire day. In order to be effective, the activity needs to be spread out. This helps explain why vigorously exercising a few times a week still isn't enough to counteract the ill effects of daily prolonged sitting.

#1: Standing Hip Flexor Stretch

#2: Standing Calf Stretch

#3: Standing Inner Thigh Stretch

#4: Standing Back/Buttocks Stretch

#5: Kneeling Lunge Matrix

#6: Hip Flexor, Hamstring, and Quad Stretch

#7: Side Line Twisting Back Stretch

#8: Chest Stretch

#9: Back Butt Stretch

#10: Pole Stretch for the Back

Standing Hip Flexor Stretch

Standing Calf Stretch

Standing Inner Thigh Stretch

Standing Back/Buttocks Stretch

Kneeling Lunge Matrix

Hip Flexor, Hamstring, & Quad Stretch

Side Line Twisting Back Stretch

Chest Stretch

Back Butt Stretch

Pole Stretch for the Back

Sitting or Standing, Good Posture Is Critical

Postural deterioration is another common outgrowth of prolonged sitting. So in addition to frequently getting out of your chair, maintaining proper posture while sitting is extremely important and can help mitigate its damaging effects. Poor posture can impair the function of your internal organs and interfere with good blood flow—no matter what position you're in.

The Gokhale Method, developed by Esther Gokhale, is an excellent way to improve your posture while sitting, standing, and moving. For more about this effective technique, please listen to my interview with Esther at the above link. Another posture exercise you might find helpful is the Bruegger exercise, which helps correct the forward-bent upper body posture (slumped) that many people develop from long hours at the computer or desk.11, 12 Esther explains:

"In our stack sitting method (which is really healthy sitting, primal sitting, if you will), you have your behind out behind, but not exaggeratedly. That's very important. Then your bones stack well and the muscles alongside your spine are able to relax... Now when you breathe, your whole spine lengthens and settles, lengthens and settles. There's this movement, which stimulates circulation and allows natural healing to be going on as you sit.

If you sit poorly, whether relaxed and slumped or upright and tense, you've lost all of that. So do we want to blame [all the adverse health effects] on sitting, or do we want to blame it on the poor sitting form? That's my question."

Additional Recommendations

If this is a topic that interests you half as much as it does me, I would encourage you to play around with the concept. I've only been experimenting with this approach for a year, so I'm in constant revision mode. There are many excellent ideas and approaches, and I'm sure with some experimentation, you'll find some strategies that work for you.

I should mention that I am not a fan of the new standing desks because they don't really solve the problem. What Dr. Vernikos found was that it was the movement between positions that was key in preventing the damage from microgravity. The remedy for this is to keep moving throughout the day, and not remain in one position for too long. If you tend to sit for long periods and are concerned about minimizing the adverse effects, you might find the following information from our earlier articles helpful:

  • Foundation Training: 15 exercises developed by Dr. Eric Goodman that may help you improve your posture. Foundation exercises can also significantly decrease your risk of exercise injury.
  • Acceleration Training: Also called Whole Body Vibration Training (WBVT), this is a type of exercise you perform on a vibrating platform such as the Power Plate. Acceleration Training works by increasing the force of gravity on your body—which is at the heart of issue, according to Dr. Vernikos. You may also increase the G forces on your body using a "rebounder" (mini trampoline) for similar, but less extreme, benefits.
  • Altering Your Workplace: Tips for making slight alterations to your individual workspace and for building more activity into your day.

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