PARIS — Are you sitting down? Probably. Yes, there are new studies that show the collateral health effects (beyond the virus itself) of COVID-19 and the rolling lockdowns include serious maladies linked to an increase in the sedentary lifestyle. For millions of people suddenly forced to telework and spend more time sitting down, and far less time outside the home, there are a range of negative effects on our health that can potentially be catastrophic across society as a whole.

The risks: Some researchers say the lack of physical activity is the hidden new health risk of this century.

• When inactive, we don't stimulate our muscles as much as we should, but we also tend to eat more, which means that our body, instead of eliminating calories, accumulates them.

• "All the nutrients go directly into the body fat and with a lack of sufficient blood pressure in the arteries of the lower limbs, arteries are not stimulated enough." "When you stay seated, the numerous muscles in your thighs and calves are completely inactive," Martine Duclos, a professor and hospital practitioner in Clermont-Ferrand, France, told Les Echos.

• This leads to a higher risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well cardiovascular disease and cancers, but also higher risk of depression and lower cognitive function.

Getting worse: Before the coronavirus, an increasing number of people were already spending several hours every day sitting down, whether it was in an office, in transportation, when eating, in front of a screen … And with telework, stay-at-home measures and the inability to take part in certain sports, this trend has gotten worse. In France, the National Academy of Medicine even published a statement at the end of March to warn citizens that "lockdown doesn't mean inactivity."

• French people spent on average around 6 hours, 30 minutes sitting down per day during the spring lockdown, a study conducted by Santé Publique France found.

• 61% of people surveyed said they spend more time inactive during this period and at least a third adding they actually spend more than 7 hours sitting down each day.

• This was especially true for young adults, people who teleworked and those who live in urban environments. The country counted around 250,000 teleworkers before the pandemic and around 3 million during the lockdown in the spring 2020, France Culture reports.

California step count: A research study led by a medical team from the University of California in the U.S. reviewed more than 19 million daily step count measurements registered by smartphones in 187 countries and found that physical activity dropped sharply in several countries after lockdown measures were implemented — some as much as 50%.

• For instance, Italy saw a 48.7 % decrease in steps, 30 days after the lockdown was declared at the beginning of March.

Don't forget the kids: Sedentary activities such as watching TV, playing video games and browsing on the Internet have progressed from 22.6 hours/week on average before the lockdown to 33.3 hours/week in May and June 2020 for children between 6 and 18 years old, according to another study by Harris Interactive in France. More worrying, around 14% of young people didn't practice any sport during the lockdown as some "didn't even go out all for three months", "finding themselves with a deficit of their capacities," professor Jean-François Toussaint, director of research institute IRMES, told 20 Minutes.

Photo: Annie Spratt

A way out: Fortunately, there are solutions to curb this trend and it doesn't necessarily involve running a marathon every week. There is actually a scientific difference between being sedentary and inactive. "We can be active 30 minutes every day or 150 minutes every week, but also sit down 10 hours every day. It's possible to be both sedentary and very active. In English we call them ‘active couch potatoes'," Jean-Philippe Chaput, professor and researcher at the University of Ottawa, told Radio Canada.

• The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSPE) has recently published 24-hour movement guidelines that include recommendations on sedentary behavior such as limiting sedentary time to 8 hours or less and breaking up a long period of staying seated by getting up every 30 minutes to walk for 2 minutes. "We've seen that just simply reducing or breaking up your sedentary time can lower some risk factors for heart disease and diabetes," Travis Saunders, an assistant professor in applied human sciences at the University of Prince Edward Island, told CBC.

• A team from the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin also recommends doing five four-second "sprints" on an exercise bike every hour over the course of 8 hours as a way to offset the harms of a very sedentary life. This kind of physical activity proved to increase fat burning by almost half compared with measurements taken after spending 8 hours sitting.

• If you telework it is also recommended to stand up while working on your computer, in your kitchen or by buying a standing desk, install a DeskCycle or sit on a stability ball. It is also better not to use any screen in the bedroom and watch one's diet.

A role in immunity? The COVID-19 pandemic could prove to be useful to conduct more studies on physical inactivity and measure the effects of sedentary lives have on our health but also allow us to draw guidelines for the next lockdown crisis. This summer, an international team of scientists and researchers called for an ambitious research agenda: The authors believe that physical activity has a major role to play in combating the virus by improving immune functioning as well as enhancing the efficacy of vaccines.


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