Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

What Sitting Does to Your Psyche

Sitting down too much takes both a physical and emotional toll.

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Here’s some bad news you probably shouldn’t sit down for: Sitting for hours on end isn’t just bad for your waistline and physical health, as has been well-documented in recent years. Turns out, according to new studies, extensive sitting also undermines your emotional well-being.

Your Chair—A Mortal Enemy

It stands to reason: The more time you spend sitting, the less physical activity you’re likely to get. That raises your risk for a host of health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Yet inactivity isn’t the only concern: The act of sitting in itself also seems to be inherently harmful. Even if people get their recommended 150 minutes per week of aerobic physical activity, those who spend the rest of their 6,500 waking minutes in a chair may be shortening their lives.

In a study of more than 220,000 Australians age 45 and up, people who sat for more than 11 hours daily had a 40% greater chance of dying within three years than those who sat for fewer than four hours. While 11 hours might sound like a lot of sitting, you could quickly rack up that much time if your typical day consists of working at a desk for eight hours, commuting for another hour and unwinding in front of a TV or computer for a couple of hours at night.

Unhealthy changes in metabolism may be largely to blame for cutting lives short. Prolonged sitting has been linked to metabolic changes such as: higher triglycerides; lower HDL (good) cholesterol; and decreased insulin sensitivity.

How Sitting Affects Your Psyche

Both the routine of sitting and the absence of exercise can be hazardous to your cardiovascular and metabolic health. But just like the rest of your body, your brain depends on good blood flow and glucose metabolism to work properly.

A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk for glitches in brain functioning.

Some of the psychological effects of sitting may also 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.

Sitting Down, Stressing Out

A handful of recent studies have looked at the emotional fallout of too much sitting. Here’s a sampling:

  • Psychological distress.

    A study of more than 3,300 government workers in Australia found that those who spent more than six hours of a typical workday seated were more likely to score in the moderate to high range on a test of psychological distress than those who sat fewer than three hours. This held true, regardless of how much leisure time exercise they got.

  • Depression.

    Another study of nearly 9,000 women in their fifties found that those who sat for seven hours per day—and were physically inactive—were three times as likely to have symptoms of depression than individuals who sat for fewer than four hours and got the recommended amount of daily physical activity. The relationship between depression and sitting may be a two-way street: Depression saps people’s energy and motivation to move, and sitting a lot may just make the depression worse.

  • Reduced well-being.

    Researchers reviewing data from a national wellness project in the UK looked at how much non-work time people spent sitting down to watch TV, use a computer, ride in a vehicle, or socialize. They assessed participants’ mental well-being with a general health questionnaire. They found that, for both sexes, spending lots of non-work time on the computer was associated with lower mental well-being. For women, long hours of TV watching and total hours of non-work sitting also seemed to have a negative impact.

Stand up for yourself: If you have a desk job, seek opportunities to add more activity breaks to your day. And reconsider how you spend your free time: It’s important to make time for the gym or a regular run. But don’t count on even a daily half-hour of exercise to completely cancel out the unhealthy, unhappy effects of 11 hours in a chair.

 

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a full-time writer; i.e., a professional sitter. She is perpetually working on getting off her duff more often. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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