By John Salak –
The trend toward working remotely brought about by the pandemic has undoubtedly changed lives. In many ways, the changes have been for the good, which is why many companies and their employees have embraced the concept.
There are some unseen consequences of remote working that society as a whole is just coming to face. Commuting is gone or significantly reduced for many, which translates to workers being less physically active and spending more time at their home desks, staring at screens. In fact, they’ve become much more sedentary, which is not only a physical drawback but a mental health one as well.
Iowa State University is one of several groups and research centers trying to come to grips with the inactivity fallout. It decided that initial pandemic-related data could provide insights on the association between mental health and activity, which in turn could provide clues on how to help people battle depression and similar issues.
“In March 2020, we knew COVID was going to affect our behavior and what we could do in lots of weird, funky ways that we couldn’t predict,” said Jacob Meyer, assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State and lead author of the university’s research.
The Iowa team began its multi-tier work by looking at recent research that found people who continued to spend a higher amount of time sitting even as restrictions were being lifted between April 2020 and June 2020 were likely to be more depressed than those that become more active.
“Sitting is a sneaky behavior,” Meyer explained. “It’s something we do all the time without thinking about it.”
His team worked to examine how physical activity and sedentary behaviors are related to mental health. Within this scope, the researchers looked at how these behaviors can influence the way people think, feel and perceive the world. They first dug into the issue by examining survey responses from more than 3,000 participants nationwide.
The participants self-reported how much time they spent doing activities, like sitting, looking at screens and exercising and how those behaviors compared to pre-pandemic times. They also used standard clinical scales to identify the status of their mental states such as noting depression, anxiety, feeling stressed or lonely.
“We know when people’s physical activity and screen time changes, that’s related to their mental health in general, but we haven’t really seen large population data like this in response to an abrupt change before,” Meyer explained.
Not surprisingly activity levels for participants, in general, declined sharply during the pandemic. Those meeting recommended activities levels of 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate exercise weekly decreased by 32 percent right after pandemic-restrictions took hold. The same participants reported feeling more depressed, anxious and lonely, according to the initial findings published last year.
A follow-up study on the same group was launched to see how they were faring several months into the pandemic and found that many people saw their mental health perspective improve as they adjusted to the restrictions.
“But for people whose sitting times stayed high, their depressive symptoms, on average, didn’t recover in the same way as everyone else’s,” Meyer reported. In effect, spending large portions of their day sitting, blunted mental health improvements.
He was quick to note that establishing an association between sitting and mental health is not the same as determining disproportionate sitting causes depression. It’s possible people who were more depressed sat more or than people who sat more became more depressed. There could have been other factors as well that the researchers did not identify.
Greater insights will be generated as the team examines survey data from June 2020 to June 2021, he noted.
“I think being aware of some of the subtle changes we’ve made during the pandemic and how they might be beneficial or detrimental is really important as we look to the other side of pandemic life,” Meyer said.
Regardless, of future insights, exercise is critical to mental health. Admittedly, breaking sedentary habits can be difficult.
“If you’re no longer walking down the hall for in-person meetings, you can still incorporate that break from sitting by taking a short walk before and after your Zoom call,” Meyer said.
People working from home can try walking around the block before and after the workday to mimic their pre-pandemic commute, which Meyer said can benefit people physically and mentally, and help add structure to the day.
The findings out of Iowa coincide with research from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg that showed the critical component exercise plays in mental health. Their work revealed that moderate or strenuous exercise can alleviate anxiety, which included individuals dealing with chronic disorders.
The Swedish researchers found that all exercise can help battle anxiety and depression, but they discovered that participants in the university’s 12-week study who engaged in high-intensity activity saw a significantly greater improvement in their anxiety levels than those whose exercise regime was less demanding.
“There was a significant intensity trend for improvement—that is, the more intensely they exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” reported Malin Henriksson, a doctoral student at the university and the study’s first author.
Exercise has always been seen as beneficial for individuals suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. But the Swedish research is groundbreaking because it has helped underscore and quantify the impact of strenuous exercise.
The results could have wide-ranging impacts for those suffering from anxiety and who have been treated with cognitive behavioral therapy or drugs. In many cases, this therapy doesn’t work, and drugs can have debilitating side effects.
“Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualized, have few side effects and are easy to prescribe. The model involving 12 weeks of physical training, regardless of intensity, represents an effective treatment that should be made available in primary health care more often for people with anxiety issues,” explained Maria Åberg, a professor at the Swedish university and a corresponding author of the research.