Consequences of Sedentary Behaviour and How to Minimize Them
In today's society, sedentary behaviour, or spending long periods of time sitting or lying down, has become an increasingly common occurrence due to the widespread use of technology and the rise of desk jobs.
In fact, it is not uncommon for people to spend one-half of their day sitting with minimum movement, with the other half being non-exercise physical activity (1,2). Alarmingly, only 28% of Americans are getting 150 minutes of physical activity per day (5 days of 30 minutes) (2).
It is the goal of this blog post to clarify the negative impacts sedentary behaviour itself can have on health, and how you can take steps today to minimize its harmful effects which include increased levels of cardiovascular disease, obesity, musculoskeletal problems, some cancers and mental health.
What is sedentary behaviour?
Sedentary behaviour comes from the Latin word sedere, which means “to sit”, and includes a variety of behaviours such as commuting and TV-watching activities that can be summarized as those that involve sitting and exerting low energy expenditure (1,2).
Interestingly, researchers studying the molecular and physiological implications of sedentary behaviour on human health have discovered it activates different body processes that, regardless of if the minimal physical activity guidelines are met, still can lead to negative health outcomes (1,2). Therefore, sedentary behaviours should be viewed separately from other activities and limited in both duration and frequency.
As we discuss further below, one of the main preventative measures is to break up long periods (>1 hour) of sitting with frequent (5-10 minute) breaks. The following sections will discuss the negative impacts of sedentary behaviour as well as some actionable steps to start minimizing its potentially harmful effects.
Consequences on physical health
One of the most significant impacts of sedentary behaviour is its effect on physical health. Prolonged sitting has been linked to a number of chronic health conditions, including:
Studies have shown that sitting for long periods of time can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems. Hamilton et. al, embarked on a series of in-depth reviews on the negative impacts sedentary behaviour has on cardiovascular disease.
They noted in populations with jobs involving long hours of sitting (>5.5 hours) the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) is about twice that of more active jobs (2). Furthermore, a follow-up study concluded that prolonged sitting predicted increased CVD in 73,743 women independent of energy expenditure.
Sitting for extended periods of time can lead to weight gain and increase the risk of obesity, as well as related health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Studies have demonstrated a clear link between these and other metabolic syndrome symptoms such as high blood glucose and cholesterol levels in relation to sitting periods, with higher levels of sedentary behaviours further elevating risk, with estimations being upwards of being x2 at risk with prolonged sitting (1,2).
Sitting for long periods of time can put stress on the neck, back, and hips, leading to pain and discomfort. Vlandmir Janda was one of the first to comment on the upper/lower crossed syndrome which is common in sedentary individuals. Essentially, upper and lower crossed syndromes are characterized by a tightening of the upper neck and chest muscles as well as the hip flexors, respectively. This makes sense given a large amount of time is spent sedentary, adaptive shortening takes place in these areas due to the fixed positions.
With this in mind, it can also increase the risk of developing conditions such as back pain, herniated discs, and osteoporosis. When the body remains in a seated position for extended periods of time, it puts extra strain on the back and neck, leading to pain and discomfort.
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