Right now, it feels as though our world is closing in on us. Where we used to move from packed train carriage to spread out offices to vast restaurants, we are now limited to the confines of our homes, which play host to our typing, eating, exercising and, somehow, sleeping.
That means that the lines between career and life are blurred. How many times have you ended up logging on to work as soon as you wake up because there’s no commute to distract you, or realised that you’ve been sat down for hours straight because there’s no Pret on the corner to run to?
But not moving all day (and potentially all night) only adds to the mental distress we are facing right now. On World Mental Health Day (10 October), Stylist launched the Work It Out campaign by asking everyone to start taking their Work 5 a Day – small breaks that can help support us through the steep rise in burnout caused by the pandemic.
However, it shouldn’t just be a case of slumping from your desk chair to your sofa for an hour of Friends. While we know that concentration and productivity can be improved by getting up at regular intervals, there are mental health benefits to moving during your break.
“There is harm to being sedentary for so long,” says Dr Zoe Williams, GP and member of the Strong Women Collective. “It can put our body into a state of inflammation which actually has large effects on the brain and can affect our mood,” she explains.
In fact, inflammation has been linked to disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression, and in a study published in Biological Psychiatry, showed that there was a significant reduction in mood just three hours after participants’ inflammatory response was triggered. Imagine the impact from long-lasting inflammation?
Research from the University of Illinois in 2012 shows that exercise can increase anti-inflammatory cytokines but Dr Williams stresses that it is not enough to simply follow up an hour of training or a 5K run with twelve hours of desk-bound work. “Physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour are separate,” she says. “You can be somebody who is very physically active, cycling every day or going to the gym. But if you then sit down for nine hours a day you are also sedentary. Or, you might be someone who moves a lot throughout the day but doesn’t do any activity. Even if you’re good in one area, you can still be putting your mental health at risk in the other.”
So, taking breaks is crucial to reduce sedentary behaviour and “creates that metabolic shift which is favourable for both physical health and mental health,” explains Dr Williams.
Unfortunately, how often and for how long we move during the day for the ultimate boost is still inconclusive. As it stands, the NHS advice is to break up long periods of sitting with activity for just one to two minutes. This could be walking, stretching or any form of movement that gets the heart rate up, the brain switching on and the muscles working. Dr Williams suggests aiming to move every 20 minutes – that’s moving away from your WFH desk three times an hour to do anything from using the restroom, preparing a snack or taking a walk around the block (or even the room).
And, if you can, doing some focused movement will provide the biggest benefit: just 15 minutes of walking or running a day reduced the risk of depression by 26%, in a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and 10 minutes of stretching has also been shown to reduce anxiety levels, according to research by the University of Zaragoza, Spain.
Simple ways to move more in the day
Dr Williams shares her three favourite ways to reduce sedentariness when working.
Whether you walk with a colleague in person or on the phone, these can be a great way to reduce the amount of time spent sitting.
Avoid using the lift
No problem when you’re at home, as most of us don’t have an escalator installed in our homes. But if you are back in the office, walking up the stairs is a simple way of boosting your body.
Move the bin
Most of us want a tidy workspace, so if you put the bin in another room you have no choice but to walk elsewhere when you rip a page from your notebook or finish your snack.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).