Sedentary Behavior and the Pandemic

By Megan Roche

I’m an epidemiologist in progress, a physician, and a running coach for athletes ranging from run/walkers to people who run 100-mile races both professionally and for “fun.” Online run coaching, which works out to about 20% run coaching and 80% life journaling, provides an interesting insight into the lives of a geographically diverse group of people. As COVID-19 became a reality this year, athletes started expressing similar sentiments in their training logs. It was an unprecedented moment as a coach. It was the first time I’d seen all of my athletes grapple with a common experience.

The concerns expressed in the athletes’ training logs started showing patterns. There were elements of unease, unrest, financial distress, loneliness, and fear. Yet one pattern seemed odd in this group of active individuals: new-onset hip, hamstring, and low back pain. I started probing. Something had to be going on.

Sure enough, the response to my question, “What did your day look like yesterday?” yielded similar answers. “Yesterday I took back-to-back-to-back Zoom calls in my purple plush chair” or “Yesterday I spent the entire day writing my dissertation. I took one ten-minute break to eat lunch but was otherwise parked in my home office.” With that one question, I think I found my hypothesis to the surge in hip, hamstring, and low back pain incidence: prolonged sitting.

Prolonged sitting is a global problem that might be exacerbated by the pandemic, though is certainly not unique to the pandemic. Over the last 50 years, changes in transportation, technology, and the workplace have contributed to increases in sedentary behavior. The REGARDS study, performed in a cohort of 8,000 middle- and older-aged adults in the US, found that on average, individuals spent over 11 hours of the waking day in sedentary behavior, half of which occurred in uninterrupted bouts longer than 30 minutes. Sedentary behavior impacts risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, mental health disorders, and musculoskeletal pain. And those risks persist even for people that get exercise at other times.

Sedentary behavior is a complex problem, but the solution is simple. We need to move more. And we need to find creative ways to reinforce movement in the pandemic through collective action from individuals, businesses, and governments. For example, individuals can commit to movement by performing at-home yoga or taking breaks to do a 5-minute walk every hour or jumping jacks every 30 minutes. Businesses can reinforce movement patterns by encouraging conference calls to be done while walking. Local governments can consider shutting down roads or areas to dedicate to social distancing walking/exercise space.

Movement can also be the catalyst to spark other beneficial lifestyle behaviors. An increase in movement patterns can facilitate better sleep, healthier nutrition choices, and stronger mental well-being.

Let’s walk, bike, run, dance, play, hop, spin, twist…whatever it takes to move before we Zoom.