More people have a sedentary lifestyle than most think. If you don’t believe it, does this sound familiar?
Wake up. Get ready for work. Sit in the car during traffic for 45 minutes.
Arrive at work. Sit at desk, check emails and do some work. Move to conference room, and yawn your way through an hour-long meeting.
Order lunch from your computer without getting up. Lunch arrives. Eat at your desk while simultaneously browsing the Internet and preparing that memo.
Sit for another few hours.
Get back in the car. Drive half hour to the gym. Spend an hour working out.
Drive home. Prepare dinner. Grab a snack, and sit on the couch to catch up on your favorite series.
Head to bed. Repeat.
It’s startling to discover that Americans spend more than 90 percent of their lifetimes indoors and 70 percent of time awake each day sitting. When you reflect on the average day for most people, it’s just as startling how accurate it is and how sedentary our lifestyles have become.
While it might feel more comfortable to kick back in an armchair than take a walk around the neighborhood, living a sedentary lifestyle has a direct, negative effect on our health and wellness. It’s why we’re seemingly always tired, always stressed and always struggling to maintain healthy weight as a society.
Dangers of a Sedentary Lifestyle
The human body was designed to move. For thousands of years, that’s exactly what humans did.
Much of it was for survival: We moved to gather food, escape predators and migrate to more forgiving land.
Even as humans advanced, our bodies were in motion. Long days of farm work, trudging into town for school or supplies, and other factors of everyday living meant there was little time for our ancestors to rest on their laurels. In the mid-20th century, however, technological advances, a rise in car culture and a shift from physically demanding work to office jobs began chipping away at our physical activity.
Today, at a time when we have more choices than ever in almost every aspect of our lives, most of us choose to be stationary.
How does not moving regularly take a toll on our health? The World Health Organization estimates that a lack of physical activity is associated with 3.2 million deaths a year.
A 2017 study of 3,141 adults over the age of 50 concluded that the effects of not moving vary based on your level of frailty. Researchers found the highest level of frailty experienced the most severe impact.
Let us count the ways living a sedentary lifestyle takes a toll on our bodies.
1. Heart Disease
Sitting for too long means your muscles aren’t burning as much fat as they could be and your blood is flowing through your body at a slower pace, giving fatty acids a better chance of clogging your heart — which can lead to coronary heart disease.
One study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that the more time men spent sitting in cars and watching television, the more likely they were to have some type of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Another study published in 2022 concluded that “long-term [sedentary behavior] increases the risk of CVD in healthy adults, whereas [physical activity] reduces the risk of CVD and improves indicators associated with CVD.”
2. Diabetes Risk
When you’re not moving, your body isn’t using as much blood sugar, and that’s not a good thing. A study of more than 80,000 people found each hour they spent watching TV increased their risk of developing diabetes by 3.4 percent.
“Netflix and chill” doesn’t sound so fun now, does it?
3. Reduced Circulation
Remaining stationary for too long slows blood circulation to the legs, which can lead to swollen ankles, blood clots, swelling and pain. At the scarier end is deep vein thrombosis, when a blood clot forms in your legs. The clot can eventually break free and obstruct other parts of your body, including your lungs.
Meanwhile, reduced sitting has been found to help with circulation. For instance, researchers in the Netherlands examined the effects of less sitting on blood flow and determined that “long-term reduction in sedentary behavior improves peripheral vascular function and cerebral blood flow and acutely prevents impaired vascular function and decreased cerebral blood flow. These results highlight the potential benefits of reducing sedentary behavior to acutely and chronically improve cardio- or cerebrovascular risk.”
4. Fuzzy Thinking
Ironically, sitting down to work can actually lead to trouble concentrating. When we’re not moving, there’s less blood being pumped throughout our bodies, including our brains. This slows down our cognitive functions and leads to brain fog.
Not only that, but research published in September 2023 found that “Among older adults, more time spent in sedentary behaviors was significantly associated with higher incidence of all-cause dementia. Future research is needed to determine whether the association between sedentary behavior and risk of dementia is causal.”
Meanwhile, regular exercise can boost brain performance, while sedentary lifestyles can impair cognition.
5. Loss of Muscle and Bone Strength
Forget flexing: We need our bodies to maintain lean muscle tissue so we can perform our daily tasks without hurting or taxing our bodies. With a sedentary lifestyle, that all changes. Ordinary events, like grocery shopping or picking things up, become much more difficult.
This becomes especially important in older adults, who are already losing muscle mass and bone strength.
6. Increased Risk of Cancer
The kicker with a sedentary lifestyle is that even if you exercise regularly, it might not be enough to combat all those hours you spend sitting at work or in the car. A review in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute analyzed 43 studies, totaling about 4 million people, that dealt with people’s sitting behavior and their incidences of cancer.
Researchers found that adjusting for physical activity didn’t budge the link between a sedentary lifestyle and cancer. We spend so much time not moving that even those 30 minutes at the gym aren’t enough to counteract all those hours at our desks.
That’s not the only link between being sedentary and an increased risk of cancer. For instance, a meta-analysis relayed that “the results from this meta‐analysis suggest that sedentary behavior within the occupational domain was associated with a 15.5% increased risk of breast cancer. It is essential to reduce the sedentary time spent at work and to secure time for leisure‐time physical activity among sedentary workers as a primary preventive measure.”
Are you standing yet? The good news is that you can prevent the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, even if you do work in an office environment — and none of them include exercising more.
How to Not Be a Couch Potato and Get Moving
1. Set an Alarm
Use your smartphone for good, not evil. Set an alarm to remind you to get up and move, ideally about five to eight times throughout your workday.
Whether it’s simply getting up and stretching, working on your feet for 10 minutes, taking a walk around the office or going for a quick stroll outside, it’ll do your body good.
2. Have Walking Meetings
Keep your brain engaged and your legs moving by scheduling walking meetings with your team. If the weather and/or your co-workers aren’t cooperating, try heading outdoors solo the next time you need to brainstorm or be creative.
Being up on your feet and not slumped in a chair can spark your creativity as your body sends blood to the brain. Plus, you can walk to lose weight at the same time!
3. Walk and Talk Instead of Sending Emails
How many emails do you send to co-workers a day? Cut back on the electronic clutter, and walk over to your colleagues’ desks to hammer out details instead. It’ll cut down on all the back-and-forth messages while keeping your body active.
Need more inspiration? Try these:
- Gossip on the phone while walking around the house instead of sitting on the couch.
- Pick up your lunch instead of ordering delivery.
- Do calisthenics instead of lounging while watching TV.
- Get up and dance the next time your favorite song is on the radio.
You might have to sit on your bum several hours a day, but you still can take stand and change your sedentary lifestyle.
- Americans spend more than 90 percent of their lifetimes indoors — and 70 percent of each day sitting.
- The World Health Organization estimates that a lack of physical activity is associated with 3.2 million deaths a year.
- A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes, reduces circulation, and leads to fuzzy thinking and loss of muscle and bone strength.
- You can combat a sedentary lifestyle by setting an alarm clock, having walking meetings, walking and talking instead of sending emails, walking around when you’re on phone as opposed to sitting, picking up your lunch instead of ordering delivery, doing calisthenics instead of lounging while watching TV, and getting up and dancing when your favorite song comes on, to name a few.