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The dangers associated with a sedentary lifestyle are many. By staying stationary, you’re setting yourself up for cardiovascular disease and the conditions that contribute to it, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. You allow your muscles to atrophy and your bone health to deteriorate, among other health problems.
In short, the countless hours you spend each day sitting at your desk or in front of the television may be adding to your health risks while at the same time subtracting years from your lifespan, numerous studies suggest.
However, research also supports the idea that it’s never too late to jettison a sedentary lifestyle. If you’ve been inactive, it’s time to leave your seat and put your body in motion to help prevent the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
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The Harms of a Sedentary Lifestyle
Prolonged sitting has been labeled as the “new smoking.” There’s even a term for it: “sitting disease.” According to one survey (Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, July 2014), Americans average nearly five hours of sitting time each day, although this total could be higher, according to other estimates.
Sitting and a sedentary lifestyle are associated with greater risks of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Some evidence suggests that prolonged sitting can increase your risk of chronic kidney disease. Sitting for too long can affect blood flow to your legs and also increase your risk of venous blood clots (deep vein thrombosis) and varicose veins.
The harmful effects of being sedentary also extend to your musculoskeletal system. Your body has about 640 muscles and 206 bones, and they’re all meant to be moved. A sedentary lifestyle and too much sitting contribute to poor bone health and osteoporosis. That physical inactivity also weakens your muscles and can contribute to pain and stiffness in your knees, hips, back, neck, and other joints. Conversely, many patients with arthritis feel better if they’re moving rather than sitting for long periods.
Don’t think you get a pass just because you exercise a little each day. If you spend the rest of your time planted on your behind and otherwise adhere to a sedentary lifestyle, you may offset the benefits you gain from that physical activity, research suggests.
For instance, one study found that people who sat for eight to 12 hours or more a day were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer or die from heart disease or cancer, regardless of whether they exercised (Annals of Internal Medicine, Jan. 20, 2015).
Move It or Lose It
Still, evidence suggests that reducing your sitting time and exercising can counter a sedentary lifestyle. In one study (Circulation, online Jan. 8, 2018), among 53 middle-aged adults, those who committed to a two-year aerobic exercise routine increased their fitness and reduced their heart-muscle stiffness, a risk factor for heart failure. (A sedentary lifestyle is associated with increased heart-muscle shrinking and stiffening with age.)
“The key to a healthier heart in middle age is the right dose of exercise, at the right time in life,” study lead author Benjamin D. Levine, MD, founder and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, a joint program between Texas Health Resources and UT Southwestern Medical Center Dallas, Texas, said in a statement. “We found what we believe to be the optimal dose of the right kind of exercise, which is four to five times a week, and the ‘sweet spot’ in time, when the heart risk from a lifetime of sedentary behavior can be improved, which is late-middle age. The result was a reversal of decades of a sedentary lifestyle on the heart for most of the study participants.”
Even replacing sitting time with standing can help your cardiovascular health. In a study of 782 people (ages 36 to 80), every extra two hours a day spent standing rather than sitting was associated with improvements in blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL, “good”) cholesterol, and the ratio of HDL to total cholesterol. And, replacing two hours a day of sitting time with walking or running led to greater improvements in these health parameters, as well as a reduction in measurements of obesity, (European Heart Journal, Oct. 14, 2015).
Get on Your Feet
Most medical experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week (e.g., 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week). For many people, a brisk walk at a pace of about 3 miles per hour constitutes moderate-intensity exercise. (See our post “The Benefits of Walking.)
In addition to exercising, find simple ways to break up your sitting time. For example, if you’re a busy office worker or your spend countless hours in front of a computer, invest in a standing desk, which allows you to sit at your computer and raise it up to a standing level.
Complement the desk with a cushioning pad to stand on and ease pressure on your feet. If you still opt to sit at your desk, be sure to get up and take a short walk every hour on the hour, or more frequently, if you can.
Consider these other tips to help you get moving, reduce your sitting time, and avoid a sedentary lifestyle:
- Schedule 30 to 45 minutes a day to exercise; put it on your calendar, and set a timer or a reminder on your smartphone, computer, or other device.
- If your office isn’t on the first floor, take the stairs instead of the elevator to get to it.
- When you go to the store or work, park farther away and walk, rather than take the closest parking space.
- Pace back and forth while you talk on the phone; go for a walk during long conversations.
- Stand when you watch television, or at least get up and do some simple stretches during the commercials. Better yet, watch your favorite shows while walking on a treadmill or pedaling a stationary bicycle.
- Abandon the remote control, or put it out of reach. That’ll force you to get up and change the channel or adjust the volume on your television.
- Invest in a pedometer or fitness tracker to keep tabs on your physical activity. These devices are also good motivators to get you moving.
- When possible, take a bike instead of your car to nearby destinations.
- Stay active around the house. Rather than pay to have someone mow your lawn, clean your house, or perform other household tasks, do them yourself.