February 22, 2021

Get up, Stand up: How to Combat the Risks of Sedentary Behavior

by Scott Schafer
Technology has drastically changed our lives, improving convenience yet dramatically decreasing movement. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, children and adults spend approximately 7.7 hours a day (~55% of waking hours) being sedentary. Sedentary behavior can be defined as any waking activity in a sitting, lying, or reclining position at low intensity. These activities have a low energy expenditure and are often associated with occupational or recreational screen time. Examples of sedentary behavior: sitting at your desk for hours at a time, driving, eating meals, and reclining, especially while watching your favorite new television series. In years past, one’s occupation, general lifestyle, and leisure activity naturally included greater physically activity. In modern society however, we must make a more conscious effort to include physical activity into our daily lives if we wish to achieve Real Health.

Movement and activity set a strong foundation for physical health. When sedentary behavior trumps movement, it can negatively impact the body in the following ways:

  • Compromises skeletal/muscular structures due to poor posture
  • Increases percent body fat and decreases fat free mass (muscle)
  • Decreases muscle flexibility and joint mobility
  • Decreases bone density and muscular strength
  • Decreases the efficiency of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems

When these factors stack up, a sedentary, physically inactive life becomes the cause of 1 in 10 premature deaths and is the fourth leading cause of mortality worldwide. Individuals are at the highest risk level when they sit most of the day and never set time aside for exercise.  It is important to remember that even if you have a structured exercise routine in your day but are otherwise sedentary, your risk level is still high!

*Adapted from The American Institute of Cancer Research.  (n.d.).  [Infographic of the cancer risk of exercise and physical activity levels].  

As the illustration above suggests, simply moving more produces immediate health benefits.  If you are finding it difficult to incorporate more structured workouts into your day, try the following strategies.

Step 1 – Stand! Invest in a standing desk, stretch while watching TV, or set an alarm on your phone or Fitbit to alert you when you have been sitting for more than 60 minutes. Simply by standing more often, you can improve posture, increase alertness, and promote blood flow.

Step 2 – Move more often.  Research shows that as little as 10 minutes of physical activity can have a significant impact on your health.  Parking further away to get more steps or taking a walk during business calls are all easy ways to get an extra 10 minutes of movement in your week.  This simple habit can help improve blood pressure, sleep quality, cognition, mood, and insulin sensitivity.

Step 3- Make it your goal to meet the National Recommendations of Physical Activity found HERE. Aim for 150-300 minutes of moderate activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity weekly. Research shows that the risk of dying prematurely decreases as minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity are added each week. Put another way, physical activity can add years to your life!  With 500 minutes per week of brisk walking, 4.5 years could conceivably be added to one’s lifespan—not a bad return on your investment in movement.

* Kelly, J. & Shull, J.  (2019).  Foundations of lifestyle medicine: The lifestyle medicine board review manual, 2nd edition.  American College of Lifestyle Medicine.  pp. 187-202.

*MET stands for metabolic equivalent of a task and is a common method for measuring intensity. One MET is essentially the amount of oxygen the body uses at rest, also known as an individual’s resting metabolic rate, which is about 3.5 milliliters of oxygen consumed per kilogram of bodyweight per minute (ml/kg/min). 

Step 4 – As you become more consistent with physical activity, incorporate and fine-tune your weekly workout routine to include a healthy balance of strength, mobility, and cardiovascular exercise. By doing so, you will continue to reap health benefits, by:

  • Reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Improving bone health
  • Decreasing risk of certain cancers (esophageal, lung, colon, and kidney)
  • Improving respiratory function
  • Lowering the risk of dementia
  • Increasing joint mobility
  • Improving body composition (increase in lean muscle mass, decrease in body fat)
  • Improving balance and coordination
  • Increasing agility, speed, and power
  • Increasing muscular strength and endurance

Especially during this past year, many have found themselves sitting more frequently. Take an honest look at your movement during a typical day—from when you wake up to when you go to bed.  If you notice that most of your daily activities involve sitting, simply start with the goal of standing more often. While any movement is good movement, remember that a 30-60 minute workout won’t combat 7-9 hours spent sitting. Stand more, move more. Your body will thank you!


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