Is Too Much Sitting Making You Anxious?

Prolonged sitting is linked to increased anxiety.

Posted Jun 19, 2015

morgueFile

We live in an age of anxiety and inactivity — and there’s growing evidence that the two are related. In the first review of its kind, researchers looked at the relationship between spending long stretches of time in a chair and feeling anxious.

What they found should give cause for pause to anyone who sits at a desk all day or crashes on the couch all evening. “The findings of our review showed that spending long periods of the day sitting was linked to an increased risk of anxiety,” says Dr. Megan Teychenne, lead author of the review paper published this week in BMC Public Health. Teychenne is a lecturer in physical activity and health at Deakin University’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research (C-PAN) in Australia.

"But it's not all bad news," Teychenne says. “There are many easy ways to reduce the time we spend sitting each day.”

Anxious? Beware the Chair

Teychenne and her colleagues combed the scientific literature for research on the association between sedentary behavior and anxiety. They found nine studies — seven in adults and two in children and adolescents. Their conclusion: Taken as a whole, these studies offer “moderate evidence” of an association between chair time and anxiety risk.

All the studies were descriptive, rather than experimental, in design. In other words, they could show associations between things, but they couldn’t determine cause and effect. So while there are plausible theories about how prolonged sitting might breed anxiety, more research is needed to confirm them.

  • Depression may be an important go-between. Anxiety and depression often occur together. In fact, nearly half of people diagnosed with depression also have an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Depression can drain people’s energy and sap their motivation to move. And the less active people are, research shows, the more depressed they may feel in a vicious cycle.
  • Social isolation may be a factor for people who devote lots of time to solitary, sedentary activities, such as watching TV. “One may speculate that spending long periods of the day sitting in front of the television may lead to social withdrawal, which could then lead to increased feelings of social anxiety,” says Teychenne.
  • Disturbed sleep may also play a role, especially for people who spend hour upon hour staring at an electronic screen or playing videogames. “It has been suggested that prolonged sitting — particularly when using screen-based entertainment such as computers, smartphones and TV — may lead to sleep disruption or even arousal of the central nervous system, and that may lead to an increase in anxiety symptoms,” Teychenne says.
  • Poor health is another likely contributor. Physical inactivity is a risk factor for developing heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. But beyond that, prolonged sitting in itself has been linked to unhealthy metabolic changes, such as higher triglycerides, lower HDL (good) cholesterol and decreased insulin sensitivity. Even people who never skip a daily workout aren’t immune to the ill effects if they spend most of their remaining time in a chair. The chronic health problems that result may give rise to anxiety.

Take a Stand Against Sitting

You don’t have to just be a sitting duck, however. There are simple ways to get off your duff and on your feet more often. “For example, if you have an office job, then try breaking up your sitting time by standing and getting a glass of water every hour,” says Teychenne. “Rather than emailing colleagues down the hall, get up and go chat with them. Or, like many of my colleagues at C-PAN, try a standing desk.”

Become aware of how much sitting you do during your leisure time as well. “If you enjoy spending your downtime watching TV, then get up during the ad breaks and move around,” Teychenne suggests. “If you enjoy reading a good book, then stand up and have a stretch at the end of each chapter.”

Teychenne adds, “It’s not hard to change the way we do things in order to sit less. We just have to be conscious of it and start making these changes — and soon enough, they will be second nature.”

Linda Wasmer Andrews writes about health, psychology and the intersection of the two. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Read more from this blog:
What Sitting Does to Your Psyche
Three Ways to Make Your Desk Job Less Sedentary