Is Sedentary Lifestyle the New Smoking? Let’s Find Out

By Amber Luckow

reviewed by Kareem dauda

Reflect on all the sitting you do every day — commuting to and from work in a car or train, working at your desk, eating lunch, and flopping onto the couch to unwind after a long day’s work. Studies show that long periods of inactivity and sitting are bad for your health. Even if you manage to squeeze a workout into an otherwise physically inactive routine, the long-term effects of sitting for long hours can be just as dangerous as smoking to your health. Sedentary lifestyles account for 3.2 million deaths per year, which is 6% of all deaths worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s considered a major cause of up to 25% of breast and colon cancer cases, 27% of diabetes cases, and 35% of coronary heart disease cases. 

Studies show that sedentary behaviors can increase the risk of depression. In addition, research states that the time spent in a car (9 hours per week or more), watching TV (10 hours per week or more) or the combination of both (19 hours per week or more) are behaviors associated with depressive symptoms.

These figures may motivate you to get your athletic shoes from the closet and go running, but it’s highly recommended that you integrate physical activity and exercise into your lifestyle by starting small and gradually building up your stamina in order to avoid injury and form a habit you can maintain. 

 

How does a sedentary lifestyle affect health?

It’s been almost a decade since the WHO (2002) declared physical inactivity as one of the reasons for early mortality. Studies show that sedentary lifestyle ranks fourth among other leading risk factors for death; it increases all causes of mortality, doubles the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increases the risks of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, lipid disorders, depression, anxiety, and colon cancer. According to a study, especially aerobic and resistance types of exercise are associated with a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Whatever we do, our body tries to adapt to be really good at it. So when we sit excessively, our body internalizes that posture and may not fully shed it, even after we stand up and move around.

 

Muscular contractions

While excessive sitting interferes with muscular balance and normal joint function, muscular contractions do more than just make us move. They also secrete and uptake various substances in the body, including metabolites like glucose as well as peptides called myokines, which may play a role in functions like tissue repair and communication amongst organs throughout the body. Furthermore, when we move, muscular contractions stimulate our metabolism, which handles the usage and storage of the nutrients we take in. Studies show that being sedentary can consequently lead to chronically elevated blood sugar and fat retention. Over time, an over-prevalence of these substances can lead to clogged blood vessels, putting us at risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as making us susceptible to diabetes and metabolic syndrome. 

 

Mental function

If you’re looking to improve your thought process in a given moment, getting up and moving around can help the ideas flow. While time spent sitting can lead to generally compromised mental function, movement acts as a natural antidepressant, fights anxiety, and sharpens mental acuity. Not only that, synchronized movement — such as a mirroring exercise, dancing, rowing, or simply matching your gait to that of your walking buddy — has been shown to increase self-esteem in addition to general feelings of connectedness, positivity, and cooperation towards your movement partner.

 

The cardiovascular system

Movement has long been touted as healthy for the cardiovascular system, as aerobic exercise can strengthen the heart to become more efficient at pumping blood throughout the body, delivering oxygen and nutrients, and removing waste products. If you’ve ever had a head rush while standing up that made you dizzy and want to sit back down, it’s because when you stand up after being seated or lying down for a long time, gravity pulls your blood down, quickly dropping its pressure and preventing it from getting to your brain efficiently. This is why it’s good to pump your calves occasionally while sitting or to do some calf raises if you’re standing for a long time. 

With a sedentary lifestyle, we see that most of the systems of the body are at a major disadvantage. However, with a physically active lifestyle, we see how movement can regulate metabolic function, keep joints limber and strong, sharpen the mind, facilitate circulation, and bolster overall immune function. 

 

What can I do to adopt a more active lifestyle?

The WHO highlights the multiple benefits of physical exercise for our health. What are steps you can start taking in your daily routine?

 

  • Start early: Set the tone for movement in your day by limbering up as part of your morning routine. It will help ground you, give you an energy boost, and release stiffness, making you more inclined to move throughout the day. 
  • Self-powered transportation: Walk or ride a bicycle, scooter, or skateboard to travel short distances.
  • Take the long way: Whenever possible, use the stairs, get off the bus early, or park your car at a reasonable distance from your destination so you can walk the rest of the way.
  • Take a stand: Choose to stand on public transportation and sneak in calf raises or pedal your feet to help with circulation. 
  • Ditch the chair: Elevate your desk and work standing some of the time.
  • Move through it: Do simple exercises and stretch while watching TV or sitting at a computer.
  • Frequent fit breaks: Set reminders to get up and move every 30 minutes. Don’t hesitate to refresh that cold coffee or tea; the trip to the kitchen is a good excuse to move.
  • Two’s company: Plan active social activities with your friends like walking, hiking, or dancing instead of grabbing coffee or going out for drinks. On a date? Visit a museum or follow dinner or a trip to the movies with an evening stroll around the neighborhood. 
  • Embrace the mundane: Take on your own household chores or gardening. Know that you’re taking care of your living space and your body at the same time. 
  • Make it interesting: Take on physically laborious projects and hobbies like carpentry, camping, or martial arts.
  • Set the stage: Arrange your environment to encourage the natural movement of the whole body. Low beds, coffee tables, and sitting cushions require larger joint action as you sit or rise, encouraging deep squats similar to crouching around a campfire. Ladders for lofts, bunk beds, or high shelves offer rare climbing opportunities to mobilize the shoulders and back and strengthen contralateral coordination. Place regularly accessed items on shelves a little overhead to encourage reaching motions. Multipurpose rooms requiring frequent moving of furniture provide pushing, pulling, and lifting opportunities. Stairs naturally work the legs, and stability balls can serve as playful furniture, functioning both as proprioceptively engaging chairs and fitness props. 
  • The movement you love: Find an activity you love to do, like dancing, rowing on a lake, or kicking a football with your kids.
  • Spread it out: Remember your workouts don’t have to happen in one sitting. You can sprinkle activity in throughout the day. Consider planning a 10-minute moderate-to-vigorous fit break on the even hours of the day, filling it with activities like jumping jacks, knee lifts, push-ups, and stair climbing.
  • Take it on the road: Carry out walking meetings with your colleagues around the office courtyard or a pleasant walking path. Remember, movement helps everyone think better. 
  • Drink up: Our bodies function best when well hydrated, plus the need to use the facilities will give you a natural urge to move from time to time. 

 

Approach new activity being particularly mindful of your posture in all phases of the movement and consider having a professional, like a fitness trainer or osteopath, evaluate your body alignment and movement patterns. If any postural or joint dysfunctions are discovered, they can give you special exercises or treatments to remedy the imbalance. Additionally, when you do sit, do your best to maintain good posture. 

If adding more activity to your already busy routine feels daunting, simply sprinkle extra movement in your day whenever you can. Ideally, though, try to make these activities a habit. It takes time for a behavior to become automatic, usually not less than two months, but you may find adopting a new routine significantly easier after a few weeks of dedication. If you can commit to a change for this relatively short period of time, you will find it gathering momentum. Incorporating the change into your lifestyle may then become increasingly easier over time, until you find yourself almost addicted to the behavior and craving the additional movement. It’s important to keep in mind that despite the technological advances that have made sedentary work so common, the body’s need to move certainly hasn’t changed.

Amber Luckow
From an early age, I loved the expressive power of movement and have spent over three decades performing, choreographing and teaching a wide variety of movement modalities.  I am a certified personal trainer with a Corrective Exercise Specialty through the National Academy of Sports Medicine with a bachelor’s degree in dance from Arizona State University.  I am passionate about helping people become more physically and mentally empowered in their bodies, allowing them to engage with the world with the sense of freedom and confidence that comes with optimized posture, alignment and movement habits.

Kareem Dauda

I am an experienced researcher who has a great passion for public and occupational health and digital technology. I aim to explore both psychological, biological, and social factors that affect individual wellbeing and happiness. As a graduate of Psychology and Health Science from the prestigious Technical University of Munich (TUM), my main aim is to promote how health knowledge can be effectively communicated to individuals and populations. I have a passion for digital health learning and ways to leverage technology to accelerate how behaviour can be positively changed.

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