Last week, a new UK study linked sitting down for eight hours a day to a higher risk of depression. The research, which looked at the physical activity of 4,257 teenagers, found that those who do a lack of physical activity during adolescence have a greater risk of developing depression as an adult.
But what does that mean for the office workers among us? I don’t know about you, but I spend a shocking amount of time sat at my desk every single day, especially when the dreary winter weather makes the idea of going outside at lunchtime rather unappealing. Yes, I know how effective exercise can be for promoting good mental health – but can sitting down for long periods actually be detrimental for our mental health, even as adults?
To find out more, we consulted two experts on what a lack of physical activity for long periods of time can do to our wellbeing.
“During exercise, your brain receives a hit of natural feel good chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin. These can help to improve your mood and thinking, combat stress levels and even prevent and help treat some mental health conditions,” explains Dr Rebecca Rohrer, clinical fellow for Bupa UK. “However, this in turn means a lack of physical activity can lead to people experiencing a drop in their mood, or they may struggle to cope with stress and anxiety. They may also feel tired, lethargic and have trouble sleeping.”
Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan, agrees: “Lack of physical activity impacts our mental health in many ways, especially when we’re sitting down at our office desks all day. Sitting down for long periods is also associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, and even premature death.”
Of course, it’s not exactly clear why sitting down puts us at a greater risk of developing depression. Even in the study above, the researchers only found a link between depression and a lack of physical activity, not a cause and effect relationship. However, it’s likely that the causes identified above have a part to play.
It’s also important to note that sitting inside all day reduces our exposure to and may cause a deficiency in Vitamin D, which has previously been linked to depression. This is because the vitamin has been proven to play a role in the production of serotonin and dopamine, the “happy chemicals” in the brain that are often lacking when someone is dealing with depression.
Sitting down at your desk all day also makes it more likely that you’ll spend your time staring at your screen rather than connecting and engaging with those around you, which may cause you to feel isolated and stressed.
But don’t worry – it’s not all doom and gloom. According to the experts, there are small changes we can make to our daily routine to make sure we’re keeping on top of our physical exercise.
“We should all aim to be as physically active as possible,” says Dr Rohrer. “If you’re sat down for most of the day, whether that be because you work in an office or have a long commute, it’s still possible to achieve your weekly exercise quota to keep you fit and help you stay well. Staying sedentary means that you’ll miss out on important mental health benefits, as well as the opportunity to reduce your risk of developing some health conditions and maintain a healthy weight.”
She continues: “Making small cumulative changes to your daily choices – like taking the stairs instead of the lift or going for a walk on your lunch – helps to break down your exercise target for the week, making it easier to fit in as part of your routine and seem less daunting to achieve. Throughout the day, take regular breaks from your desk by standing up and taking a walk around the office to stretch your muscles and rest your eyes. Setting reminders on your phone to get up and about every hour during the day or using an activity tracker can help with this. Take a look at Bupa’s exercise planner for simple ways to reach your weekly exercise target.”
On top of these suggestions, Dr Brewer also suggests incorporating non-sedentary behaviour into your working day is a great way to stay on top of things.
“Try using a standing desk – these are becoming increasingly popular as standing means you are exercising, even if only gently – your muscles are constantly working to maintain your posture and support your body,” she explains.
She also suggests having “walking meetings” and walking or cycling to work wherever possible, and learning about simple exercises we can do at our desk (you can read our guide to these here).
“Eat oily fish regularly as their omega-3 oils help to reduce depression – if you don’t like eating fish, supplements are available,” she says. “Take a Vitamin D3 supplement as well – at least during the cold months of the year – for its beneficial effects on mood.”