Watching TV, playing video games, surfing the web: sedentary activities such as these have long been associated with physical health problems such as obesity and heart disease. A new study, however, suggests that they could also be associated with an increased risk of anxiety.

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The study found evidence to suggest sitting time was positively associated with the symptoms of anxiety.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research (C-PAN) at Deakin University, Australia, and is published in BMC Public Health.

“Anecdotally – we are seeing an increase in anxiety symptoms in our modern society, which seems to parallel the increase in sedentary behavior,” says lead researcher Megan Teychenne. “Thus, we were interested to see whether these two factors were in fact linked.

“Also, since research has shown positive associations between sedentary behavior and depressive symptoms, this was another foundation for further investigating the link between sedentary behavior and anxiety symptoms.”

The researchers define sedentary behavior as activities that require minimal body movement and result in low energy expenditure. These include long periods of sitting while traveling or at work, and screen-based activities such as computer use and television viewing.

A growing body of evidence suggests sedentary behavior is linked to an increased risk of developing many chronic diseases, including obesity, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers. Little research has been done to investigate the relationship between sedentary behavior and mental health, however.

Anxiety is a widespread and debilitating mental health condition that can lead to excessive worrying, headaches, shortness of breath and muscle tension. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults.

For the study, the researchers conducted a systematic review of nine studies that looked specifically at the relationship between anxiety and sedentary behavior. Seven of these focused on adults, with the other two including adolescents.

Across the nine studies, sedentary behavior was classified in different ways. Some studies defined it according to the total time spent while sitting and some assessed the amount of time spent doing specific activities such as using a computer.

The researchers discovered in five of the studies that an increase in sedentary behavior was associated with an increased risk of developing anxiety. Four of the studies also suggested that increased time spent sitting was associated with an increased risk of anxiety.

Although the evidence in the studies was less strong with regards to an association between the amount of time using screens and anxiety, one study reported that 36% of high school students with more than 2 hours of screen time a day were more likely to develop anxiety than those who had less than 2 hours.

“Our research showed that evidence is available to suggest a positive association between sitting time and anxiety symptoms – however, the direction of this relationship still needs to be determined through longitudinal and interventional studies,” states Teychenne.

The researchers acknowledge that the current body of evidence exploring the relationship between sedentary behavior and anxiety is limited. However, of the studies that were available, 78% found at least one positive association between the risk of anxiety and sedentary behavior.

This moderate evidence should be enough to indicate that further work is warranted, allowing researchers to eventually comprehend all the mechanisms that contribute to the debilitating mental illness.

“It is important that we understand the behavioral factors that may be linked to anxiety – in order to be able to develop evidence-based strategies in preventing/managing this illness,” says Teychenne.

Previously, Medical News Today reported on a study that identified the circuits in the brain responsible for raising anxiety during nicotine withdrawal.