Implementing Positive Changes to your Sedentary Lifestyle

Your Sedentary Lifestyle Is Turning You Into a Nervous Wreck

By: Sarah Goodyear

The link between a sedentary lifestyle and anxiety was reinforced recently by new research comparing sedentary mice and mice that exercise. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience and covered in the New York Times,  where I first learned about it, suggests that habitual inactivity can cause increased anxiety in animals that don’t move around much.

Researchers at Princeton University compared the behavior and brains of mice that were allowed to exercise on wheels in their cages to those who instead “sat quietly.” The mice that were active showed more inclination to explore new environments when given the chance, an indication of less anxiety. When dunked in cold water, as stressful for mice as it is for humans, the running mice reacted more calmly than the sedentary ones.

This effect has been observed before, but the new study delves deeper into the mechanisms behind it. Analysis of the rodents’ brains revealed that the running sparked the creation of excitable neurons that prompt activity, and resulted in a huge new supply of neurons that produce GABA, which has a soothing effect on the nervous system.

The normal human solution, which is to walk around the world as we work, gather food, and play, is increasingly inaccessible to us.

Is there a connection between our own sedentary lives and our epidemic of nerves? According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, afflicting 18 percent of the nation – some 40 million people. Eleven percent of middle-aged women in the U.S. take anti-anxiety medication.

Correlation is, of course, not causation. But this latest study adds to other science that connects the amount we do or don’t move our bodies and our mental health.

Part of the problem, of course, is that too many Americans see movement as something to be done at a discreet time. Work at a treadmill desk, your own little exercise wheel in your own little cage! Drive to a spin class at the gym! There, you can ride up imaginary hills with your fellow creatures trying to escape the perils of the sedentary life!

The normal human solution, to walk around the world as we work, gather food, and play, is increasingly inaccessible to us. And even when it is not, we frequently perceive it to be inaccessible. According to the Federal Highway Administration’s 2009 National Household Transportation Survey, 68 percent of the trips taken by U.S. residents between ½ and 2 miles in distance were made by vehicle. Only 23 percent of such trips were made on foot.

One-third of respondents reported no walking trips whatsoever in the previous week.

“The greatest barrier to walking more is the perception of too much traffic, not enough street lighting, or wide road crossings,” reports the FHWA. “People are also concerned about crime, had no nearby paths or sidewalks, and were too busy to walk more often.”

But “working out” is never going to be a solution for everyone, or even for most people. It can be expensive and strenuous and dull. Instead, we should be encouraging people to see walking (or biking) as part of their daily routine — not a special activity to be engaged in wearing special shoes on a special path, but simply the sensible way to get from one place to another. Imagine how much calmer we might be.

Andrew R. Cline, associate professor of media and journalism at Missouri State University, has a blog in which he advocates what he calls “‘the 1-mile solution.” He suggests that people use a simple tool such as Walk Score to assess what services are within a one-mile radius of their homes, and then simply walk or ride a bike to make those trips. Cline writes:

I’m … suggesting that we … put effort into an idea that is sustainable and could grow the numbers by creating a habit. It is, after all, mostly a habit that puts us behind the wheel of a car to travel one mile. It’s habit that makes the risk and expense of a 1-mile car ride seem normal.

If people do try their own “one-mile solution,” they may discover exactly what the FHWA was talking about: a pedestrian environment unpleasant or downright hostile to travelers on foot. Maybe then we’ll finally have the political capital we need to lobby for real infrastructure improvements that allow people can get the activity they need in a natural human way, rather than spinning like mice on a laboratory wheel.


  • Invest in a standing desk. These can be found at your local office depot, IKEA also has them online or in the Portland location. Utilizing a standing desk can help you stay moderately active while staying where you are. Here are some options: Three dimensional leg swings; keeping one foot on the ground start by tapping the opposite toes back and forth. Do this for 20-30 seconds and then tap the same foot across the midline of your body and back and forth. Finally rotate your hip, knee and toe inward and then outward, creating rotation in the body. Now, repeat on the other side. By doing this you have created a small amount of mobility in three dimensions leaving your body happier than simply standing still. Even if you do not have a standing desk available to you you can do these exercises to help you stay active without having to leave your work space.

  • Make a point to get up from your work space and walk around. Here is an idea. Instead of bringing a giant water bottle filled at the beginning of your day, keep a smaller cup or bottle at your workspace( 8-12 oz). Make yourself a goal of refilling the cup/bottle 4-5 times throughout your work day. When your cup/bottle is empty you now have a time to get up and move a little, walk to the water fountain or sink and stretch your legs. There is an extra bonus to this system! When you sip water throughout your day rather than gulp tons all at once your body actually absorbs hydration more efficiently. When we gulp tons of liquid all at once our body systems get overwhelmed with the large amount, only takes what it can use at that moment and flushes out the rest, along with other vital nutrients.

  • Graze on your food throughout your work day and on your lunch break take a walk outside. By taking a break from your work environment even if it is only for 10 minutes you can feel refreshed. Go outside, get some fresh air, and move your body! Your brain will thank you. If you are not able to leave the building then find an empty hallway or stairway to walk up and down a few times.

  • Set an alarm on your phone or computer to give you a movement break. If you are the type of person who will sit down at your desk and power through your day without looking up then you try this out. When the alarm goes off get up and take a little walk. Set your alarm every hour or so throughout your day and your brain and body will be happier.