Some Types of Sedentary Behavior Might Be Worse Than Others for Mental Health

Here’s a question that’s still up for debate among psychology researchers: just how bad is sitting around, really?

On one hand, there’s a definite connection between sedentary behavior and mental health risks. One study found, for example, that people’s life satisfaction drops when they’re asked to limit their physical activity for a week.

At the same time, there’s a lot of room for interpretation about why sedentary behavior and mental health are linked. In the case of depression, some research has suggested that other factors like social connections and physical health conditions might explain much of the relationship with sedentary behavior.

A newly published paper, Sedentary Behaviors and Risk of Depression, sheds some light on, well, exactly what the paper’s title says. What makes the paper especially interesting is that it involved a meta-analysis, or “study of studies.”

That is, the researchers looked at results across 12 different studies on the topic of sedentary behavior and depression, seeing whether any patterns emerged. Interestingly, whether there was an association between sedentary behavior and depression depended on the specific type of sedentary behavior considered.

The key distinction was between mentally passive sedentary behaviors and mentally active ones. The former turned out to have a statistically significant association with depression risk across the studies surveyed while the latter did not.

To put that another way, activities that are both physically passive and mentally passive might be especially bad news from a mental health perspective.

As a concrete example, consider the difference between two physically sedentary activities that involve screens: watching TV and using a computer. The researchers found evidence that watching a TV was linked to greater risk of depression but no evidence that computer use was.

Of course, it’s not always clear where to draw the line between mentally active versus passive activities. For the purposes of this study, the researchers classified reading and driving as mentally active tasks, whereas they considered sitting around talking or sitting around doing nothing in particular as mentally passive.

There are plenty of questions that remain unanswered about how the cause-and-effect works between sedentary behaviors and depression risk. But these results suggest that in order to understand the implications of sedentary behaviors for mental health, we’re going to have to get more specific in looking at different types of sedentary behaviors that might affect people in different ways.