Why would health researchers ever do something like that when they’ve dedicated their work to making people healthier and happier? In this case, the idea was to learn more about the relationship between sedentary behavior and life satisfaction.
Here’s how the study worked. Researchers from University of Mississippi designed a one-week health intervention – or unhealth intervention, maybe – in which participants were told to stop exercising altogether and to limit their movements to 5000 steps or less each day. For comparison, there was also a second group of people who continued to exercise and move around as normal.
Among the group who cut back on exercise, the effects of becoming sedentary were immediate: at the end of the week, they reported significantly lower life satisfaction. In fact, their score on the questionnaire researchers used to measure life satisfaction went down by 31 percent on average!
What this shows is that activity levels appear to have an immediate and direct impact on happiness. Becoming sedentary can precipitate a real decline in life satisfaction.
Previous research has shown that high levels of sedentary behavior – essentially, activities like watching TV or reading that are done while sitting or lying down – are worse than a simple lack of exercise. For example, one study found that low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary both independently harm life satisfaction. That is, someone who isn’t very physically active but doesn’t engage in too much sedentary behavior will on average have higher life satisfaction than someone who isn’t physically active and also engages in high levels of sedentary behavior.
The flip side of this is that encouraging people to spend less time sitting can actually improve people’s quality of life, even if those people don’t go so far as to actually exercise. A 2016 study found that interventions that discourage sedentary behavior tend to be more effective at reducing people’s sitting time than interventions that encourage physical activity.
There are many questions that remain to be answered about why sedentary behavior has the mental health implications it does and how sedentary behavior is similar to and different from mere lack of exercise. One thing that’s becoming increasingly clear, though, is that if you want to live life to the fullest, you might have to stand up and move around.
Image: Flickr/Evil Erin