Cha Purnia for NPR
Of all the ways the pandemic has affected the well-being of Americans, perhaps the least we have noticed is how much we sit. And it’s not only bad for our waistlines — it’s bad for our mental health.
More than a year-and-a-half of social distancing and work-from-home policies have led to less time commuting and more time sitting and looking at screens – a potentially toxic combination linked to poor mental health.
“The hidden effects of the epidemic that we may not even notice [is] “We’ve changed our sitting patterns,” says Jacob Mayer, director of the Wellness and Exercise Laboratory at Iowa State University.
His own research showed that in the early weeks of the pandemic, people who exercised less and spent more time in front of screens were more likely to experience stress, depression, and loneliness.
And while most people saw their mental health gradually improve as they adapted to a new reality, people who mostly stayed inactive didn’t see the same improvement, according to a follow-up study by Mayer. “People who continued to enjoy really high levels of sitting, their depression didn’t improve” as much, Mayer says.
The good news is that something as simple as some very light movement around the house to break up all of your couch-surfing time can make a difference in mood, previous research by Meyer found.
Dozens of previous studies confirm that physical activity boosts mood, reduces anxiety, and improves sleep quality.
“We constantly know that the more people are active, the more they exercise, the better their mental health,” Mayer says.
For many office workers like me, working from home means that we get caught up in the routine of spending hours in our office. With another pandemic winter about to hit us, and much of the country and the world still dealing with COVID-19, we’re often more stuck at home than we’d like, so it’s time to start sitting less and moving more.
Mayer and other exercise experts shared some tips for getting started:
Think about the basics
If you haven’t exercised for the duration of the pandemic and you’re afraid about starting now, don’t worry, Meyer says. Start small.
“If I were to walk around my office, all of these steps would be helpful, and it would be helpful,” he says.
Sports psychologist Jennifer Carter at Ohio State University says that people trying to start exercising often get caught up in “all or nothing” thinking.
“It’s like I don’t do zero or do two hours, and if I don’t get two hours, it doesn’t count, or it’s not good enough,” she says. But in reality, “five minutes is better than nothing.”
In fact, “going from no activity at all to little activity will have some of the biggest health effects,” says Meyer, compared to the benefits for someone who already exercises regularly.
Make it easier on yourself
“I think part of developing a good exercise plan for each of us is getting to know ourselves well, and knowing what’s possible,” Carter says. This includes knowing what it is Not realistic for you.
So, if you hate running, don’t run just because it’s trendy or someone tells you it’s good for you, says Carter. Or if you’re not a morning person, don’t plan to exercise in the morning.
And remember, she adds, “the getting started is the hardest part.” Don’t blame yourself if you’re struggling to get started. It is important to have compassion for yourself. “One of the principles of self-compassion is this common humanity, which we all strive for,” she says.
Try to think of ways that you will be more likely to stick with your exercise plan, perhaps by building some outside accountability. She suggests arranging with a friend to call or text each other at an agreed-upon time to motivate each other to walk or run. Carter used to do this with her friend in the morning, she says, “and that was going to lead us to move on and take on that responsibility.”
Walk whenever you can
Start walking more, says Molly MacDonald, a certified personal trainer with Corporate Fitness Works, with whom I also train.
“I’ve told a lot of people, if you have space…in your house, walk from room to room, use the stairs,” she says. “And if you don’t have stairs, just walk from room to room, back and forth, and get those extra stairs.”
Meyer agrees that sitting less and walking more will make a big difference. “If you have virtual meetings, use the beginning and end of that meeting as opportunities for you to walk around the building, walk to take out the trash, or maybe have a place close to where you want to go,” he says. “You can walk there and back just to get in the same habit of changing your sitting patterns.”
Another method many people are now using, he adds, is to take a “virtual trip,” “where at the start of the day, they walk around their house or walk around their neighborhood until they commute to work.” And you can walk again at the end of the work day.
Cha Purnia for NPR
5 minutes of exercise add up
If it’s hard for you to devote a large portion of the time in your day to walking or doing any other exercise, try spending just a few minutes every hour exercising, MacDonald suggests.
“If you can get in five minutes every hour, that increases throughout the day,” she says.
Simply add it to your calendar and set the timer for five minutes, she adds. If you work eight hours a day, it adds up to 40 minutes a day.
“That’s 40 minutes that did something, and it wasn’t 40 minutes you had to take away from your day,” she says. Health guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. She adds that those 40-minute daily activities will help add to the weekly goal.
Increase intensity in short doses
Light movement around the house is a great start, but “every minute of high-intensity activity is associated with better health outcomes than every minute of lower-intensity activity,” says Mayer. “So if you have five minutes, the more you do in those five minutes, the better.”
If you want to do more intense short workouts, start doing squats, lunges, push-ups, and planks, says MacDonald.
“A lot of body weight exercises are really good to do throughout the day, [and] It helps with blood circulation.”
If you haven’t done these exercises before, she suggests starting with squats.
“It’s a great place for everyone to start,” she says. “Just put your back against the wall and bend your knees and see how comfortable you feel.”
As for the number of squats or lunges we should aim for, she says, “there is no magic number.” Just take in as many as you can in the time you have. “Maybe you really only have two minutes. Well, do what you can in two minutes.”
You can try adding some weight to your mini workouts by using things around your house like a can of beans or a bag of sugar, says MacDonald. But be careful not to grab anything too heavy until you feel your strength.
If you feel like doing more intense exercise is strenuous, remember that “exercise, even at low intensity, may give you the same mental health effects as the high intensity stuff,” says Mayer. In particular, if you are depressed and/or don’t walk around much to begin with. “Doing anything in those five minutes is better than doing nothing.”
Cha Purnia for NPR
Do the chores that keep you moving
McDonald also advises her clients to do some chores during breaks – anything that includes standing or walking. “Now I’m jumping at the chance to even walk down the hall to take out the trash [out] Just so I can get out of my seat.”
Personally, I turned to my two favorite chores – emptying the dishwasher and washing the dishes. That’s a good move, MacDonald says.
You stand washing your dishes [and it] It will help the blood flow because you are no longer sitting,” says MacDonald. You use your legs and muscles, [and] Your muscles are asking this blood to start flowing again.”
You can do these exercises even during phone calls or Zoom meetings, says MacDonald, as long as you don’t have to be in front of the camera. This is something I’ve been trying to do for months – I try to make sure I either get a quick workout or at least get moving or do chores during meetings where I don’t have to be in front of the camera.
And MacDonald adds, if you plan on doing this, just make sure to mute yourself. You probably don’t want your co-workers to hear you out loud while you’re working out. “Some people have learned [that] the hard way.”