Stepping Away from a Sedentary Lifestyle

The human body is an amazing vessel. But it’s not intended to sit still—like in a modern sedentary lifestyle. Your body was meant to move. It’s made up of 360 joints and nearly 700 skeletal muscles. This allows for a range of motions in every direction.

That means running, stretching, jumping, sliding, pushing, pulling, and so much more. Through such actions, your body allows you to more fully experience the world. From the most elementary and overlooked feat—that your body can deliver you from one place to another—to the magnificent: Drinking in beautiful sights beyond your house. Dancing to your favorite song. Experiencing the competition and triumph of sports.

However, humans are—for the most part—doing the opposite. Instead of moving, today, you’re probably remaining largely motionless, settled into a sedentary lifestyle. What exactly is that? Being “sedentary” means engaging in a waking behavior that involves sitting or lying.

So, where people might have once moved, they now sit. Walking has been replaced with driving. Interactive play has given way to streaming TV binges. Talking in person is now rarer because of email and text messages.

“Couch potato” was an accurate description for choosing to relax in front of a screen. But the age of the iPhone now calls for a new definition. After all, if you’re sitting and looking at a screen for hours on end out of obligation—like for work—does “couch potato” really fit?

What happens when being sedentary is no longer a decision to relax? What does it mean for your health when, instead, it’s an obligatory lifestyle? Let’s find out.

Effects of a Sedentary Lifestyle

Whether by choice or duty, a sedentary lifestyle can greatly impact your health. It’s related to health issues both physical and mental in nature. Take a look at the risks involved with sinking into a sedentary lifestyle.

Physical Health

Inactivity requires fewer calories than an active lifestyle. So, the balance of the “calories in vs. calories out” equation shifts. Long, habitual periods of inactivity make it easier to gain weight. And while a few pounds here or there may be relatively harmless, continually being sedentary and gaining weight can lead to more serious issues. That includes impacts on your mobility, flexibility, and heart health.

Risk for cardiovascular problems also increases with more time spent motionless. One study collected self-reported data from a group of men about their time spent riding in a car and watching TV. Researchers compared the amounts of time for each activity separately and combined. Then they analyzed it against data for this group over 20 years later. Researchers found that long hours spent in a sedentary position were associated with declining cardiovascular health.

The ties between sedentary behavior and cardiovascular health extends to your blood pressure. One group of researchers analyzed the results of several studies looking at sedentary lifestyle and blood pressure. Participants self-reported the amount of time they spent sedentary. With each hour increase in a sedentary position, blood pressure increased proportionally. That’s bad news for those trying to maintain healthy, normal blood pressure.

Mental Health

It’s widely understood that exercise and physical activity have a positive effect on mental health. Moving contributes to a state of well-being. Research shows that extended screen time can have a negative impact on mental health for a variety of reasons (lack of interpersonal connection, loss of sleep, etc.). Plus, screen time usually implies sedentary behavior. Taken together, you can start to see the connection between a sedentary lifestyle and poor mental health outcomes.

One group of researchers analyzed several studies looking at adolescent screen time and depressive symptoms, with a special consideration for sedentary behavior. They found that in two out of three studies, prolonged screen time was associated with depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, loneliness, and more.

Bouts of Exercise Do Not Negate Sedentary Behavior

Exercise is not the opposite of sedentary behavior—activity is. Activity requires moving your body, regardless of the end result.

Health guidelines suggest 150 minutes of exercise every week. That does not include time spent moving to combat the dominant sedentary lifestyle. Only five percent of American adults participate in the recommended 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Globally, 60-85 percent of people also lead sedentary lifestyles. Consider how many people are sedentary and how few of them are combating it with general activity. It becomes obvious how far-reaching this issue can be. So, what can be done?

The truth is that you can’t exercise the sedentary behavior away. Sitting for eight hours before hitting the gym for 30 minutes will not cancel out all that inaction. That’s because the harm of a sedentary lifestyle doesn’t come from the lack of sweating and sore muscles. Rather, the danger of being sedentary is much simpler. It’s about ignoring the body’s natural purpose: movement.

Exercising is great for the body. You should do it, as recommended. But you should also remember to move your body so you aren’t occupying the same position for hours at a time. If you need more proof, consider a recent study.

Participants who exceeded the 150 minutes of exercise per week recommendation were no better off than those who reported never exercising. So, there is something to moving throughout the day even if they’re micro-movements. Instead of saving the effort for one session of exercise, consider incorporating these micro-movements throughout your day.

Managing A Sedentary Lifestyle with Micro-Movements 

Many companies have sprung up creating stand-up desks to offer an easy solution to the sedentary office life. And while standing might seem preferable to sitting, it’s still not the magic bullet. Standing might keep you from resting on your backside, but it’s still a rather motionless act. The benefit is in moving from one position to the next. So, consider this mantra: The best posture is the next posture.

A sedentary lifestyle can be broken up by adding in small or subtle actions throughout the day. This could be something as simple as taking a break from sitting to stand and stretch every 15 minutes. That’s a good staring place. Here are a few more ideas:

  • If you have a short commute, consider walking or biking. You can also add in these options to a longer commute. Bike to the train or walk to the bus. If driving is a must, park further away from your destination once you arrive. The extra steps will add up.
  • Take walking meetings. You’ll get your blood pumping, joints moving, and allow you to think more creatively.
  • If you must be at a desk for hours at a time, set a recurring alarm every hour. This will serve as your reminder to stand up for 5-10 minutes. And once you’re up, you might as well move and stretch a bit.
  • Sending interoffice mail or email? Try delivering the message yourself to add in more steps.
  • Skip the elevator and take the stairs. While it may only add one or two minutes of activity, consider how many times this might happen per day and over the course of a week. Remember that combating sedentary behavior happens repeatedly in small bouts throughout a day, not just in one big push.
  • Reframe housework as activity. You might not have considered housework, like gardening, folding laundry, or cleaning, as moving your body. But it keeps you moving and out of a sedentary position. Reframing chores in this way might help them seem more enjoyable—a necessary component of a healthy lifestyle.
  • Find natural breaks in work or play and turn them into an opportunity to move. Perhaps you’re enjoying a movie on TV when a commercial break pops up, or you get put on a long hold while making a call. Find a movement or two to do while you wait for the commercial or hold to end. This could be simple things like shoulder rolls, arm circles, or pacing. You could even challenge yourself and do something with a little more intensity, like calf raises, jumping jacks, or lunges.
  • Make your environment work for you. You don’t need a gym to move your body. If you find a few extra minutes throughout your day, repurpose your environment and its contents to your advantage. Got a heavy water bottle? Imagine it as a dumbbell. Have a sturdy chair? Use it as a box to step on, or a bench for incline push-ups.

Live Your Movement Mantra

The sedentary lifestyle is the default for so many people around the world. You might even get caught in it, too. While it can seem like a beast to tackle, there are so many simple strategies you can employ.

Start by always remembering that the best posture is the next posture. Give your body what it craves—frequent movement throughout each day. It doesn’t have to be big, wild, or intense. You just have to change: from sitting to standing, standing to stretching, stretching to walking, and eventually sedentary to active.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.