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What is subjective well-being and how it changes depending on how much time you spend sitting

The covid-19 pandemic has introduced a series of new behaviors into daily routines, such as physical distancing, the use of masks and hand disinfection. Meanwhile, many old behaviors, such as attending events, eating out, and meeting friends, have been put on hold.

However, one old behavior that has persisted, and possibly been amplified by COVID-19, is sitting, and it’s not surprising to see why.

Whether one is sitting during transportation, work, screen time, or even during meals, everyday environments and activities are almost exclusively suited to prolonged sitting.

Thus, sedentary behaviors, such as sitting, make up the majority of the day for many people.

The current daily sedentary time is likely to be even longer than before the pandemic as a result of stay-at-home orders, limitations on business and recreational facilities, and heightened health concerns.

Health vs. wellness

This situation is a problem, since chronic excessive levels of sedentary lifestyle have been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, mortality and even some cancers.

However, for many people, their own judgments and feelings about their quality of life (also known as subjective well-being) may be more important and relevant to making decisions and adopting health behaviors than the possibility of developing chronic diseases.

Subjective well-being encompasses an individual’s own assessment of their quality of life.

It includes concepts such as affection (positive and negative feelings) and satisfaction with life.

Interestingly, these assessments can conflict with physical health results.

For example, a person may have diabetes but still report high subjective well-being, while someone without physical health problems may report poor subjective well-being.

This is important as it means that the way a person feels about their own health does not always align with what their body can demonstrate. That is why evaluating subjective well-being is vital to painting a holistic picture of health.

Different contexts in which we are sitting

Relatively little research has examined the relationship between sedentary behaviors and subjective well-being.

Exploring this relationship is important as different contexts in which one isá sitting – how to socialize or spend time versus a screen – can generate different feelings or judgments of subjective well-being, unlike the relationships between physical health and sedentary behavior, which tend to be more consistent.

As health psychologists focused on physical activity and sedentary behavior, we reviewed the scientific literature that describes the relationships between measures of sedentary behaviors – such as physical inactivity and screen time – and subjective well-being as measured by affect, life satisfaction, and subjective well-being in general.

Our review highlights three main findings. First, sedentary behavior, physical inactivity, and screen time demonstrated weak but statistically significant correlations with subjective well-being.

In other words, those who they said sitting more often and spending longer periods without physical activity they reported less positive affect, greater negative affect and less satisfaction with life than those who sat less and moved more.

We also found that this relationship was more evident in studies that compared very sedentary people with those with more active lifestyles.

Sitting is not always bad

Our second main finding relates to the context of sedentary behavior.

While many studies examined sedentary behavior in general and physical inactivity, other investigations looked at specific contexts in which one spends time sitting and their relationship to subjective well-being.

These studies revealed that different contexts of sedentary behavior have unique relationships with subjective well-being.

For example, screen time was consistently and negatively associated with subjective well-being.

However, contexts like socializing, playing an instrument, and actually reading demonstrated positive associations with subjective well-being.

These results differ from traditional research on health-related sedentary behavior, in which all sedentary behavior is considered harmful.

Our review suggests that some types of sedentary behavior can be beneficial for quality of life.

Rather, not all contexts in which one sits are the same in terms of subjective well-being.

So when people strive to reduce their sitting time, they need to consider not just how much to reduce, but what kind of sedentary time to reduce.

Less time sitting is better

Our third main finding concerns general sitting and self-reported levels of sedentary behavior.

Most studies found a weak and statistically significant association between longer overall sedentary time and lower subjective well-being.

However, in studies in which participants were asked to compare their sedentary behavior to the amount of time they normally spend sitting, those who perceived themselves as more sedentary than usual reported significantly poorer subjective well-being.

These findings suggest that the amount of time someone spends sitting in general may not be as important on its own as the comparison between how long they spend sitting and the usual level of sedentary lifestyle.

This means that anyone, regardless of the amount of time they normally sit or physical activity, can potentially benefit from sitting less.

Covid-19 continues to influence life and daily routines. Even when businesses and gyms finally reopen, and we feel more comfortable meeting other people and eventually we stop wearing face masks, we will almost certainly continue sitting down and sitting will keep changing the form how we feel.

While we may not be able to eliminate all the time we spend sitting down, we can all be aware of how much we can reduce it and where we can reduce it to be healthier and feel better.

* Wuyou Sui is a postdoctoral researcher in the Behavioral Medicine Laboratory, School of Exercise Science, University of Victoria, Canada

* Harry Prapavessis is Professor of Kinesiology at Western University, Canada.

* This article was originally published in English on The Conversation and you can read it here.

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