Despite all the warnings in recent years that sitting too much is ruining Americans’ health, most people are doing just as much sitting, or even more, than ever before. An investigative study published in April 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that from 2001 to 2016 the amount of time that both adults and adolescents living in the U.S. spent sitting has remained “high and stable.”
The average American now spends at least six to eight hours per day being sedentary, most of the which is spent watching television or videos and using the computer — at work or school and during leisure time.
But guess what? You may be able to eliminate your increased risk of early death caused by too much sitting at work by exercising for as little as 22 minutes to one hour a day.
That’s the verdict scientists came to after publishing a paper in 2016 reviewing 16 other studies looking at more than 1 million people’s sedentary behaviors and death risk followed by more recent research in 2023 published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. That news may come as a wave of relief, especially if you’re reading it, well, sitting behind a screen.
The JAMA investigation mentioned above, which included 51, 896 participants, tracked levels and changes in sedentary behaviors among the U.S. population from 2001 through 2016.
Here are some of the key findings from the JAMA study regarding how much sitting Americans are doing on average each day:
- It was found that about 65 percent of the population sat watching television or videos for at least two hours/day.
- Time spent using the computer outside of school or work for at least one hour/day increased from 2001 to 2016. An estimated 56 percent of children, 57 percent of adolescents and 50 percent of adults now spend more than 60 leisurely minutes on their computers daily.
- Estimated total sitting time also increased during this time period. The average time spent sitting went from 7 to 8.2 hours/day among adolescents and from 5.5 to 6.4 hours/day among adults.
In addition, the 2023 study analyzed data from four prospective cohort studies spanning 2003–2016 that involved nearly 12,000 participants who were at least 50 years old. The study authors concluded: “Sedentary time was associated with higher mortality risk but only in individuals accumulating less than 22 min of [moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA)] per day. Higher MVPA levels were associated with lower mortality risk irrespective of the amount of sedentary time.”
Too much sitting is now linked to a host of diseases, including diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease. And get this: The lead author of one report reviewing studies of over a million subjects combined stated that about 300,000 cases of dementia could be prevented each year if everyone lived physically active lives.
Here’s the good news: Researchers involved in another series of studies found that at least an hour of moderate-level physical activity a day (things like cycling at about 10 mph or brisk walking) could cancel out the increased risk of death associated with a sedentary lifestyle, and further research shows as little as 22 minutes of activity per day can help protect health.
For the purposes of this study, researchers found one hour of exercise canceled out the negative effects of sitting eight hours a day, something that’s all too common in office settings. The study found exercising an hour did not completely eliminate the risk associated with increased sitting due to too much TV time, though.
Below are key insights are from the “Too-Much-Sitting Study Series”:
- People who sat for eight hours a day — but were physically active — enjoyed a much lower risk of death compared to people who sat for fewer hours a day but were not physically active. This drives home the importance of physical activity, no matter how many hours a day you sit. The benefits of exercise are far-reaching.
- Physical inactivity costs the world economy $67.5 billion a year in lost productivity and health care costs.
- Physical inactivity is linked to more than 5 million deaths a year.
- A minimum of one hour of physical activity a day eliminated the increased risk of death associated with sitting for eight hours a day. That’s powerful!
- People who sat for long periods of time and also lived inactive lives faced the greatest risk of death.
- Only about 25 percent of people in the study met the minimum one-hour-a-day exercise threshold to eliminate the risk of death associated with sitting eight hours a day.
- This study suggests the World Health Organization’s guidelines of 150 minutes of physical activity per week is simply not enough for office workers or others who are chronic sitters.
- 80 percent of students worldwide are not exercising enough, meaning they aren’t getting the WHO’s recommended 150 minutes of weekly moderate intensity exercise.
Too Much Sitting: Can Exercise Reverse the Damage?
While the large review study we discussed earlier provides science-backed inspiration to get moving, there’s conflicting evidence regarding how big of a role exercise plays in reversing the damage created by too much sitting. For instance, the American Heart Association says exercise isn’t an antidote for too much sitting and that we need to find ways to reduce sedentary time, too.
That same idea is echoed in a 2014 report published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, where researchers discovered that two hours of sittings erases the cardiovascular benefits gained from 20 minutes of exercise.
In 2015, Toronto researchers published another large review study and concluded that too much sitting is detrimental to your health, regardless of exercise. Of course, exercising helps blunt the effects, but not completely, according to this study.
Another interesting nugget of data to come out of this study? Prolonged sitting (characterized as 8–12 hours or more of sitting a day) increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by a whopping 90 percent.
In other words, it’s not one or the other. Numerous studies continue to show that we need to exercise more and sit less if we want to prevent disease development and live a long life. It’s really that simple.
How to Eradicate Too Much Sitting
With too much sitting now as life-threatening as smoking, we need to take every opportunity to get more movement into our lives. That doesn’t mean you have to sign up for marathons, but it does mean that sitting too much needs to be avoided at all costs.
A statement published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine recommends that people with sedentary jobs work on accumulating at least two hours a day of standing and strolling during working hours. Whether at work or not, you can employ the exercise hacks below to get moving more.
Try doing simple exercises at your desk, standing up at a standing desk for part of your workday, walking during children’s dance or soccer practice, parking further away from stores when you’re errands, or squeezing in a quick burst training workout at home when you’re really strapped for time.
Here are some other ideas for squeezing in more movement:
- Have moving meetings with your co-workers.
- Request a standing workstation.
- Take foam-rolling breaks, or simply get up and stretch.
- Take an exercise class during your lunch break, or just go outside and walk.
- Talk 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.
- Try Fartlek workouts if you want to make running more fun.
- Avoid mindless surfing on the internet, watching lots of videos and scrolling through social media on your phone when at home. Instead, take a walk outside, do some yoga at home, or play with your kids or dog.
- An investigation published in JAMA in 2019 found that from 2001 through 2016, the estimated prevalence of sitting and watching television or videos for at least two hours per day generally remained “high and stable” among people living in the U.S. The estimated prevalence of computer use during leisure time increased among all age groups, and the estimated total sitting time increased among both adolescents and adults.
- Many studies have found evidence that even if you exercise, sitting for many hours each day is detrimental to your health, increasing your risk for pain, diabetes, weight gain, headaches and more.
- Avoiding too much sitting can be quite a task, particularly for people who commute to office-based jobs, but when you look at the statistics — that physical inactivity is now blamed for 5 million deaths a year — it’s clear we need to get up and moving however and whenever we can.
- It’s not all or nothing. Even if you can’t exercise an hour a day, doing any form of physical activity can help blunt some of the damage done by excess sitting.