Be active, even when you’re not.

You probably know that exercise is good for your physical health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of regular physical activity. But the rewards of exercise go beyond strengthening muscles and bones, burning fat, and improving heart health. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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It turns out that exercise is an effective, if underused, strategy to treat depression, a condition that affects almost 15 million American adults. Exercise itself has been shown to be as effective as some medications for reducing depression symptoms. More commonly, exercise is used in addition to other treatment strategies, including antidepressant medications and counseling, increasing the effectiveness of those therapies. Research shows that exercise can reduce depression symptoms after just 10 days, even before many medications become effective. 

It appears that both aerobic and resistance training are beneficial and the social support experienced through group exercise is important, too. Additionally, where the exercise is conducted matters and exercise outdoors, especially in nature, can be particularly beneficial. Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. In one study, people who walked in a quiet, tree-lined area had greater improvement in mood—they felt happier—than those who walked along a busy street in an urban area. 

What you may not know is that being sedentary, especially spending a lot of time sitting, is just as detrimental to your health as not being active. In fact, spending most of the day sitting can undo some of the benefits of exercising. The consequences of sitting so much instead of being active can be severe, including higher body fatness, poor physical function, and increased risk of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Sedentary behaviors can also have a negative effect on mental health, including depression. 

Recent research suggests that there are differences between mentally active (including reading, writing, doing puzzles) and passive (watching TV or videos) sedentary behaviors. Mental activity appears to protect against depression onset while mentally passive sedentary time may increase the risk of depression. According to one study, replacing 30 minutes per day of passive sedentary time with equivalent durations of mentally active sedentary behaviors can the risk of depression. This suggests that what you do during your sedentary time can modify the health impact. It is also consistent with the idea that mentally engaging “brain games,” including word and number games and puzzles, can enhance brain function. 

While mentally engaging yourself while sitting is better than being mentally passive, actually getting up an moving is a far healthier option. Replacing passive behavior with even light activity can reduce the risk of depression to a greater extent. And, while “brain games” are mentally engaging, there isn’t as much evidence that they improve brain function as much as you might expect. It turns out that the best way to boost your brain is to get up and move. 

A good strategy is to dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes each day to be active, but know that more, either longer duration or higher intensity, is generally better. Try to limit your sedentary time in favor of even light activity and break up long periods of sitting with movement. And, importantly, make more of your sedentary time mentally engaging and try to restrict passive behaviors like watching videos. 


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