There is plenty of evidence that a sedentary lifestyle is less conducive to good health than a physically active one.
Meanwhile, SARS-CoV-2 and lockdowns have made it more difficult for many people to stay active or take up exercise.
Some of the current situation has to do with many of us working at home. Some of it, however, is optional, such as the hours we willingly allocate to TV binge-watching.
A new study suggests better and perhaps surprising ways to spend our spare time — that might benefit our health, as well.
The research appears now in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Moving from the couch to the bed, and to sleep, is more refreshing than spending hours sitting in front of a screen — and the same is true of doing light housework, the study suggests.
The findings arrive at a useful time for those struggling to feel good during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
Lead author Jacob Meyer of Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio, says, “With everything happening right now, this is one thing we can control or manage, and it has the potential to help our mental health.”
Escaping the couch
According to the study’s authors, previous research has shown that adults in the United States typically spend 75% of their waking hours being sedentary, including 90% of their leisure time.
Even active adults have seen their activity levels drop by 32% in lockdown, according to preliminary data the researchers released in May.
During quarantine, and after a day’s work, we may find ourselves in search of restorative activity within our four walls, and immersion in online entertainment may seem a reasonable form of escape.
The new OSU study proposes, however, that there are better options that people can easily work into their quarantine schedules.
“It may be easier for people to change their behavior if they feel it’s doable and doesn’t require a major change,” according to Meyer.
The first of the study’s conclusions is that people might do themselves a favor to turn off the TV and simply go to bed for the night.
The researchers correlated getting more sleep with feeling less stressed, being in a better mood, and even having a lower body mass index (BMI).
They also associate a lasting reduction in BMI, as well as improved mood, with some light activity performed around the home.
While previous studies — and this one — document the value of moderate-to-high levels of activity, Meyer and his colleagues see real benefits even from less demanding activities, such as walking around as people talk on their phones, or standing as they prepare dinner.
“People may not even think about some of these activities as physical activity,” Meyer says.
However, they do more for you than merely being sedentary, the researcher maintains.
“Light activity is much lower intensity than going to the gym or walking to work,” he argues, “but taking these steps to break up long periods of sitting may have an impact.”
The OSU study analyzed data from the 2010–2015 Energy Balance Study at the University of South Carolina. It used 423 participants ranging from 21 to 35 years of age, with BMI values of 20–35. Each individual received $500 for taking part in the study.
To accurately track participants’ activity levels, the researchers gave each a SenseWear armband, which is an activity tracking device, to avoid inaccuracies that could result from self-reporting.
Each participant was monitored for 10 consecutive days for 24 hours a day, except during water-based activities, such as bathing or swimming.
Individuals logged any periods in which they were not wearing their armbands, as well as their activities at those times. A follow-up exam a year after the study revealed the lasting benefits of replacing time spent sedentary with light exercise.
Participants’ moods were self-reported using the Profile of Mood States. Cohen’s 10-item Perceived Stress Scale measured their perception of stress. Three height and weight measurements, on average, were taken for each individual to determine their BMI.
The study associated prolonged periods of sedentary behavior with poorer health and mood and moderate-to-high levels of physical activity with the greatest health and mood benefit.
However, it also showed that light exercise and sleep have value, and the researchers express some surprise at the positive effect of light exercise, and in particular, its long lasting effect.
So, even sleep may be better than sitting around, the implication being that if you plan to be sitting around doing nothing, you might as well go all the way and get some sleep.