Health Risks of a Sedentary Lifestyle and Ways to Add Activity to Your Daily Life

Most of us know that regular exercise has many health benefits: It strengthens your heart and other muscles, slows the bone loss that may occur with age, helps decrease stress, and even boosts our mood, to list just a few. What may surprise you is that even if we exercise for at least the recommended minimum of 30 minutes per day of moderate-intensity cardio, we may experience health risks from an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.

Here are some of the health risks research has linked to too much sitting:

Red Blood Cells
  1. Increases in fat deposits, especially around the heart
  2. Decrease in life expectancy
  3. Type 2 diabetes
  4. Higher waist circumference
  5. Heart disease
  6. Obesity
  7. Sleep apnea
  8. Blood clots in the lungs

Additionally, the potential side-effects of an inactive lifestyle, such as diabetes and obesity, tend to speed up the process of memory deterioration that can come with age. Adding a fairly modest amount of activity has been shown to slow the progression of knee arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s and improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and fatigue. 

Our society is engaging in more and more sedentary behaviors. Most Americans sit at least 10 hours per day and for long periods of time with no activity, according to the National Institutes of Health. It seems likely that a national health guideline for limiting sedentary time will be developed, given recent research into the impact on our health. Until then, a sensible recommendation seems to be to take at least 5-10 minutes every waking hour to stand up and stretch or walk around, as your job/life allows. Ideally, for our best health, we will establish regular exercise routines and limit time spent sitting.

Here are some ways to reduce your overall daily sedentary time:

Tips for those with a desk job
  • Check into whether your boss would allow you to have a standing desk. (Some convert between sitting and standing.)
  • Take a lap or two around the office every time you get up to use the restroom, printer, or get water.
  • Stand up during meetings.
  • Sit on a stability ball at your desk.
  • Get up and talk with your coworkers instead of sending an email.
  • Schedule walking meetings to discuss work projects.
  • Stand or pace while talking on the phone.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Set calendar reminders that pop up to remind you to get up and move or stand up and stretch every hour.
Ideas when at home
  • Take walks with your spouse to discuss your day when you get home from work or after dinner.
  • Stand while doing tasks around the house (folding laundry, going through mail, paying bills, checking your email).
  • Get a dog – They make great walking partners and will keep you accountable to taking those walks!
  • Take your dog for walks to relieve himself instead of letting him out to the backyard.
  • Step in place, stretch, or do lunges, squats and pushups while watching TV.
  • Get a treadmill, exercise bike, elliptical trainer, or rowing machine and put it in front of your TV to get moving while watching your shows.
  • Walk around or get on your exercise equipment while talking on the phone.
  • Set a limit on your sedentary time after work, preferably no more than two hours per day sitting and watching television or surfing the Internet, particularly if you have a sedentary job.
Hints when out and about
Get Exercise Walking Your Dog
  • At children’s games/practices, walk around instead of sitting on the bleachers.
  • When getting together with friends, suggest something active like tennis, mini-golf, or a hike.
  • Shop in stores rather than online.
  • Park farther away at stores.
  • Do calf-raises while standing in lines.
  • Develop a hobby that involves movement – gardening, hiking, golf, carpentry, dancing.

Hints when out and about

You get the idea…Basically, move around and keep your circulation flowing as much of your day as possible! 

Wondering where to begin? As with any change you’d like to make, setting a goal and making a specific plan is the place to start. Lots of research has shown that those who set a goal and write it down are much more likely to make and stick with changes. Take it a step further and tell family and/or friends about what you’d like to achieve. This can add an extra layer of accountability.

Once you have set your specific goal, also write down the first two or three steps you will take toward achieving that goal. It could look something like this: I will reduce my sedentary time to three hours per day by my birthday. I will start by pacing when I am on the phone at work and limiting my television time to one hour per day.

Plan to reassess your goal at regular intervals, perhaps once per month, and set a calendar reminder (electronic or paper calendar) to do so. When you have mastered your initial steps toward your goal, plan to make more small changes, again two or three at a time until you have reached your broader goal.

Tracking your progress along the way is a great way to ensure you realistically assess how well you are moving toward your goal. Daily tracking also adds accountability to yourself. There are several ways you can do this. For instance, with the example above you could log on your calendar how many days you stuck with your plan to limit television to one hour per day. You could also track how many times per day you walked around while on the phone vs how many times you sat while talking.

Another great way to track your overall progress is with your phone’s step counter. Many smart phones have built-in step counters, but if yours does not, there are plenty of options for apps you can download (many free). All you have to do is make sure your phone is in your pocket while you are racking up those steps! This is another fantastic way to set incremental goals. Take a few days to see how many steps per day you average now. Then aim to increase by about ten percent over the next few weeks.

Always keep in mind your biggest motivators for the changes you are making, whether they include a smaller waistline, living longer to see your grand-kids grow up, more energy, improved mood, or decreased risk for life-altering diseases. It wouldn’t hurt to write down those motivators along with your goal and keep it where you will see it on a regular basis. Now get up and get started…You will be on the road to better health in no time!

Want to read more? Check out this article about Reducing Occupational Sitting Time

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