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Are you sitting while you’re reading this? Chances are, you’ll feel an urge to stand up when you’re done reading this article.

Throughout the huge changes during and after industrialization and thanks to modern technology, in the past 100 years, a huge part of the adult population went from physical to mental labor.

In consequence, sitting time increased and physical activity levels decreased, which brought up a huge public health debate.

From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re still hunters and gatherers. Our human bodies are designed for activity, thus we experience massive negative health outcomes sourcing in sedentary behavior.

  • But what exactly is considered a sedentary lifestyle?
  • What are the consequences?
  • And how can we fix them?

What defines a sedentary lifestyle?

According to the health professionals from the Sedentary Behavior Research Network [1], a sedentary lifestyle is defined by behavior that involves sitting, reclining, or laying down six hours or more daily while having an energy expenditure, below the recommendations of the American Heart Association of 150 minutes per week.

The recommended activity level should excel 1,5 METs.

What is the definition of METs?

Resting MET defines the amount of oxygen used while sitting at rest [2].

Meaning if you want to meet the AHA activity recommendation you need to spend 150 minutes per week at 1,5 times as much more energy expenditure as you would resting (like computer use, watching television, mindless scrolling your smartphone, etc.).

You would meet these criteria already by taking a walk at a good pace for 30 minutes per day.

Unfortunately, 60-85% of the world population are within the category of sedentary behavior., which makes it a global health concern.

How many hours is considered sedentary?

sedentary lifestyle woman laying

There is no “exact” amount of sitting hours that can be defined as sedentary behaviour.

Several studies show multiple effects of different time spans of sitting. There are studies showing the effects below and above 2-10 hours and everything in between.

Also, the health consequences of sedentary behavior can be countered with physical activity.

Sedentary behavior generally describes a lifestyle that predominantly doesn’t meet any physical activity guidelines while spending most of the time in a state of lowest energy expenditure like you would during sitting or laying down a.k.a. couch potatoing.

A meta-analysis by the Korean Journal of Family Medicine [3] shows that people who spend more than 4 hours sitting every day have a 1.5 higher all-cause mortality risk compared to people who watch TV for less than 2 hours a day.

However, there was no difference in mortality when people were highly active!

Even participants who spent more than 8 hours sitting per day were equal to those who spend less than 4 hours a day sitting when they were substantially active.

What are the consequences and risks of a sedentary lifestyle?

There are several health risks connected to sedentary behavior and being inactive.

Weight gain and obesity

Due to the low energy expenditure while sitting, watching TV, or playing video games the body doesn’t burn a lot of calories.

Weight gain and weight loss are basically caused by a caloric surplus or deficit.

When you eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight inevitably. That can happen very fast if you spend most of your time in a state with the lowest energy expenditure.

Mental health

depression and mental health

Low physical activity can lead to an increased incidence of mental disorders.

A study with 10,381 participants [4] showed cases of depression, anxiety, or stress when having low physical activity levels during their leisure time.

Another study in the American Journal of preventive medicine [5] also found a link to depression.

Women who sat more than 7 hours per day and did no physical activity were more likely to have depressions than women who sit less than 4 hours and are active.

Diabetes

Several studies consistently show a prevalence of type 2 diabetes caused by inactivity and increased sedentary time [6].

Heart disease

heart attack

Multiple studies were clear about the cause of overall mortality while finding hints for cardiovascular disease as the reason [7][8].

However, newer research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association [9] evidently shows an increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality in overweight women with a sedentary lifestyle.

Overall mortality

The lack of physical activity is the main reason for modern public health problems.

The most important aspects of activity for your health are the amount and intensity.

Being highly active can counterbalance a lot of negative health effects of sedentary behavior.

Yet being only moderately active while sitting multiple hours a day will help with certain risk factors but will have no effect on the overall mortality [10].

Cancer

breast cancer awareness

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute examined the relation between Television viewing and cancer risk and found an association with certain types of cancer [11].

A similar meta-analysis has been published by the Annals of Internal Medicine that shows a higher cancer risk caused by prolonged sedentary time and inactivity.

All causes

Since previous research has shown a link between sitting time and death from cancer, and other causes the American Cancer Society shows a study that included 127,554 participants over a time period of 21 years to show what the “other causes” actually are.

At the end of the research, 48,784 people have died from

“cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, suicide, lung disease, liver disease, peptic ulcer and other digestive disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, nervous disorders, and musculoskeletal disorders” [12].

cancer.org

What is considered little to no exercise?

Litte to no Excercise is considered when you’re active less than 150 minutes per week.

This is the very bottom end of physical activity guidelines. This recommendation doesn’t even require a high level of energy expenditure but only a moderate one.

So if you’re doing less than a walk at a good pace for half an hour per day, you can consider yourself 100% inactive.

What is considered an active lifestyle?

female jogging

Active lifestyles start when you meet the minimum recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.

But keep in mind that this is only the bare minimum and it doesn’t consider the rest of your lifestyle.

If you’re aiming to be more active to improve your health always consider your whole lifestyle that also includes your work life, nutrition, body weight, stress levels, etc.

Also, the impact, physical activity has on your health depends on the intensity.

So meeting the bottom end of the activity recommendation may not be enough.

How do you fix and avoid a sedentary lifestyle?

Meet at least the minimum recommendation

To conquer the negative effects of sedentary behavior you need to start getting more activity. Remember, it’s not solely the seating position that’s causing the problems but being inactive in a static position over time.

Thus follow the American Heart Associations’ recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.

A review by the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports [13] shows the effects of this recommendation as a treatment on patients with metabolic syndrome [14] a risk factor for diabetes type 2.

It shows that those who were only treated with metformin medication, later on, developed diabetes twice as often as participants who’ve been active 150 minutes per week (meaning walking at a good pace).

Go to the Gym and exercise

gym training

When you’re sitting for more than 6 hours per day, it’s gonna be very unlikely that you can counter all the negative effects by doing the bare minimum.

The best thing you could possibly do for your overall health is go to the gym and do strength training. It’s the only way to improve your posture, deal with back pain and prevent all kinds of modern diseases.

It helps with mental health, musculoskeletal status, joint protection, cardiovascular disease, metabolism, blood sugar levels and diabetes, and much more health benefits [15].

Alternatively, look for some activities that require strength. Thus you can find a new hobby that will be fun and also helps with muscle strength.

Activity of daily life

Get as much extra activity in your daily life as possible, for example by adding extra steps.

  • When you go shopping, use a parking space that’s not close to the entrance
  • Walk or use the bike instead of a car when you can
  • Use the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Use a standing desk
  • Visit your colleagues instead of calling them, etc…

Try to find your own ways to squeeze in some extra activities that fits your life.

Stand up and take breaks at work

To avoid the negative effects of sedentary lifestyles you can also avoid having a sedentary lifestyle in the first place.

Get yourself a standing desk that helps you to switch up your positions throughout the day. Do active breaks.

Stand up during your workday, stretch around talk short walks to activate your muscles and blood flow.

Try to be as active as possible and avoid long periods of static sitting.

Conclusion

As you can see the sedentary lifestyle is not 100% clearly defined by numbers but you see a tendency in behaviour.

Most of the time it defines sitting for multiple hours without proper activities. Yet, the negative effects are avoidable in multiple ways.

To avoid these mandatory health conditions that come with this behavior you have to adjust your lifestyle and get more activity.

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