How physical inactivity increases the prevalence of mental illnesses in the digital age

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October 30, 2023
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7 min read
A young black boy sits in front of a computer, playing an online game
Photo by Ralston Smith on Unsplash

In an age when screens and sedentary lifestyles rule the day, our minds strain more than our bodies move. Consequently, there is no denying the link between the rise in mental illnesses and the decline in physical activity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) released the World Mental Health Report: Transforming Mental Health for All in 2022, which revealed a global rise in mental health disorders.

The report states that mental illnesses are common worldwide, with one in eight people living with a mental disorder. While age and sex impact the prevalence of mental disorders, anxiety disorders and depression are the most prevalent in both males and females.

Per the WHO, physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for approximately 3.2 million deaths yearly. It also estimates that one in four adults globally is not physically active.

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Mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health. Depression, for instance, raises the risk of several physical health issues, especially chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Why is this a big deal?  

Mental health disorders are a significant economic burden in Africa. The World Bank estimates that the annual global costs of mental, neurological, and substance use disorders range from $2.5 to $8.5 trillion.

Mental health services receive less than 1% of the budgets of most African governments. Sixty-six million of an estimated 100 million individuals in Africa suffering from clinical depression are female.

Depression, the most common mental illness worldwide, is dubbed "the greatest thief of productive economic life."

Psychotherapist and Co-founder of a Nigerian mental healthtech startup MyTherapistng, Dedoyin Ajayi, said that one of the most evident cultural factors that may exacerbate the link between a decline in physical activity and a rise in mental disorders is the sharp rise in economic inequality and the restriction of access to resources such as a balanced diet and healthy food.

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The 2022 Global Report on Food Crises 2022 Mid-Year Update estimates that 140 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity and that at least one in five go to bed hungry.

There is also a notable rise in insecurity, which deters people from walking or engaging in other physical activities requiring them to leave their homes.

Thus, two economic costs linked to mental health disorders are decreased productivity and increased healthcare expenses.

“Mental health disorders can result in reduced efficiency in the workplace. Absenteeism, presenteeism (working while unwell), and reduced cognitive functioning can all lead to productivity losses for businesses, leading to a decline in profitability.

“There’s also the healthcare cost, like the cost of therapy and medications, which would eat into the pocket of the individuals who need them,” Ajayi explains.

It is crucial to note that physical health issues can exacerbate mental health issues and make it more difficult for patients to receive mental health treatment.

Unquestionably, technology has contributed to a decrease in physical activity. Screen time and sedentary work environments are two main contributors to this trend.

How technology is responsible for a rise in physical inactivity  

Global mental health disorders rose in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of an increase in physical inactivity. The prevalence of remote and hybrid work and the increasing adoption of technology have led to a decline in physical activity among adults and children.

Ajayi states that “inactivity reinforcement” is one of the indisputable ways technology has contributed to promoting sedentary behaviour.

“This automatically leads to reduced outdoor play, impaired social skills, and passive content consumption, where people just sit and absorb information without active participation.”

For context, people of all ages now spend significant time in front of screens due to the widespread use of digital devices like computers, tablets, and smartphones. More time spent on sedentary activities like watching TV or streaming movies, playing video games, or using social media is often associated with excessive screen time.

Plus, many jobs in today's workforce are office-based or require long hours in front of a computer. The time spent at a desk in this sedentary workplace environment leads to a deficiency of physical activity during the workday.

Online learning has also become more popular since the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it allowed for greater flexibility, people also spent more time in front of screens, which further decreased their level of physical activity.

Because eCommerce platforms make it easy to shop from home, they lessen the need for physical shopping trips, leading to physical inactivity.

Ride-sharing applications and food delivery services also make it easier for people to avoid activities like walking or cycling. These services' convenience may encourage a more sedentary way of living, leading to a rise in mental disorders.

Should tech be blamed for the rise in mental health disorders?  

Technology has had a profound effect on mental health. This impact is multifaceted, encompassing issues such as digital addiction, mental health problems related to screen time, and sleep disruptions.

Cyberbullying, digital eye strain, and mental exhaustion are some screen time-related issues. Stress can result from the mind being overloaded with stimuli and information.

Users' constant exposure to carefully chosen accounts of other people's lives on social media platforms may exacerbate FOMO (fear of missing out). Thus, people may compare themselves to others and experience anxiety and low self-esteem.

According to Ajayi, a decrease in physical activity is causing an “astronomical rise” in mental health issues.

"This is because research has shown that daily physical activity, such as regular exercise, releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters and reduce stress hormones. When physical activity declines, it automatically triggers a mental tension build up, prompting symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.”

The psychotherapist also mentioned other mental illnesses associated with a decline in physical activity, including eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, compromised attention span, which mimics attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and a decline in cognitive function that can lead to dementia. A general decline in well-being also leads to low self-esteem and increased insomnia.

On which mental health issues have worsened due to the use of technology in everyday life, Ajayi mentions ADHD symptoms.

One of the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorders is ADHD. Usually diagnosed in childhood, it frequently persists into adulthood. The most typical signs of ADHD are impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness.

“There’s a reported increase in the compromised attention span of individuals. Concentration levels are at an all-time low, and there are lower levels of productivity compared to previous generations.”

Ajayi claims studies have shown that spending too much time online can impact a person's ability to concentrate and focus. Many people believe they have ADHD because of this inability to focus.

California researchers looked at the use of digital media by over 2,500 high school students who did not show symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at the beginning of the study.

According to a Harvard report on the study, there is a 10% increase in the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of ADHD with frequent use of digital media.

Consequently, digital media can exacerbate symptoms of ADHD in young adults who had not previously received a diagnosis, or it is possible that some of the genetic or environmental factors (parenting included) that contribute to the high-frequency use of digital media also contribute to ADHD.

It is also true that the effect was negligible and that having symptoms of ADHD does not necessarily mean that you have the disorder.

Nonetheless, studies have shown that physical activity can improve psychological health and reduce the risk of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety because it enhances energy, mood, focus, self-worth, and sleep. It also lowers stress.

It can improve your ability to perform everyday tasks, help you lose weight or stay fit, reduce your risk of disease, and strengthen your bones and muscles. Thus, technology can also foster physical activities, thereby decreasing mental illnesses.  

While technology can encourage a more inactive lifestyle, it also has the potential to promote increased physical activity.

Technology that could promote physical activity includes health and fitness applications, wearable activity trackers, and interactive video games. Heart rate monitors, accelerometers, and pedometers have all been used as motivational devices to encourage physical activity.

In this article, I extensively covered how technology makes exercise more accessible in Africa.

It is crucial to remember that although technology can encourage physical activity, regular exercise should still be a priority.

So, technology is not to blame. Since technology is here to stay, people must learn how to balance their use of tech tools with physical activity.

Tips to balance technology use with physical activities  

Finding a balance between digital use and physical activity is critical for overall well-being in the modern digital age. This delicate balance allows us to benefit from technology without sacrificing our mental or physical health.

So, your first action would be to set goals for using technology and physical activity. After that, create a daily routine that sets aside specific times for technology use and physical activity. Try your best to adhere to this schedule.

One strategy to keep to your schedule is to educate yourself on the detrimental effects of excessive screen time on mental and physical health. This piece does just that. Understanding the impact can motivate you to strike a better balance.

In addition, Ajayi suggests that workplaces and schools should develop innovative campaigns to encourage employees and students to participate in physical activity. The school curriculum and organisational standards of operation should incorporate ongoing education about the value of physical activity.

While studying or working a sedentary job, take breaks to stand, stretch, and move around. It helps to re-energise your body and mind.

For instance, one routine every time Techpoint Africa employees resume at the office is called "Stretch Your Legs." It requires getting up from your seat by noon to move around and walk for ten minutes. You should take similar action if you are an employer or employee.

Besides, as a parent, you should restrict your child's screen time to promote physical exercise. Set daily or weekly limits for non-essential activities like social media, gaming, and video streaming using screen time management features on your devices.

Decide which areas of your house — like the bedroom — are off-limits to using electronics. Doing so will help you sleep better and spend less time on screens before bed.

Choose pastimes and interests that require you to move, like dancing, gardening, or playing an instrument. Engage in outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling, jogging, walking, or sports. Nature can improve both mental and physical health.

Engage your loved ones in physical activities. Sports or group exercise with loved ones can improve social ties and increase the enjoyment of physical activity.

It is an individual's responsibility to find the ideal balance between digital usage and exercise. Setting your health and well-being as a top priority may take trial and error and tweaking. But these tips can help you live a more content and balanced life.

She's autistic and interested in mental health and how technology can help Africans with mental disorders. Find her on Twitter @latoria_ria.
She's autistic and interested in mental health and how technology can help Africans with mental disorders. Find her on Twitter @latoria_ria.
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She's autistic and interested in mental health and how technology can help Africans with mental disorders. Find her on Twitter @latoria_ria.

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