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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Mental Health Consequences
In addition to its effects on physical health, sedentary behaviour can also have negative impacts on mental health. Studies have shown that sitting for extended periods of time can lead to feelings of boredom, anxiety, and depression. This can be due to the lack of physical activity and the decreased levels of endorphins and other feel-good hormones that are released during physical activity.
Sitting for long periods of time can also make it more difficult to concentrate, as well as increase feelings of fatigue and stress. If you’re curious to know more about the effects exercise has on mental health, check out this blog post where I provide a detailed breakdown.
How to minimize the negative effects of sedentary behaviour
Now that we have gone over some reasons why you should focus on limiting sedentary behaviour, let's go over some practical tips you can implement to help start breaking up sitting. It should be noted that avoiding all sedentary behaviour is not only unrealistic, but it shouldn't be a goal in the first place. Rather, as we’ll discuss more below, it's the breaking up of sitting that matters most with frequent breaks.
Here are some things you can do to break up the sitting:
Stand up and stretch frequently
Try to stand up and stretch every 30 minutes to one hour. This can help to reduce muscle pain and stiffness, as well as improve circulation. Stretching also increases blood flow to the muscles, reducing pain and the risk of injury. Studies have also confirmed that the duration of sedentary behaviour has a lot to do with its negative effects, and breaking up long periods of sitting will limit negative effects (1).
Take breaks from screen time
Spending long periods of time in front of a computer or other screen can be especially detrimental to your health. Try to take regular breaks from screen time, even if it's just for a few minutes at a time. Getting up from the screen and moving around can help reduce eye strain, neck and back pain, and fatigue.
Make changes to your workstation
If you work at a desk for long hours, consider making changes to your workstation to minimize the negative effects of sitting. Invest in an ergonomic chair and keyboard, and adjust your computer monitor so that it's at the right height to reduce neck and eye strain.
Walking is a great way to increase physical activity and reduce the negative effects of sitting. Try to walk whenever you can, like going for a stroll during lunch or taking the stairs over the elevator.
Incorporate strength training into your exercise routine
In addition to cardio, strength training is also important for overall health. Resistance exercises such as weightlifting can help to strengthen the muscles, improve posture, and reduce the risk of injury.
Reduce sedentary behaviour outside of work
In addition to reducing sedentary behaviour at work, it's also important to reduce sedentary behaviour outside of work. This includes activities such as watching TV, playing video games, or using a tablet or smartphone. Try to limit your screen time, and instead engage in physical activities such as playing sports, going for a walk, or doing household chores.
Sedentary behaviour has become a common occurrence in today's society, but it can have negative impacts on both physical and mental health. From increasing the risk of chronic disease to reducing energy levels and mood, sitting for extended periods of time can have far-reaching effects. To minimize the negative effects of sedentary behaviour, it's important to stand up and stretch frequently, take breaks from screen time, exercise regularly, and make changes to your workstation.
Additionally, reducing sedentary behaviour outside of work, incorporating strength training into your exercise routine, and increasing your physical activity through activities such as walking can help to counteract the negative effects of sitting. By taking these steps, you can maintain good health and well-being even if you spend long hours sitting at a desk.
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Hamilton MT, Hamilton DG, Zderic TW. Role of low energy expenditure and sitting in obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Diabetes. 2007; 56(11):2655–67. [PubMed: 17827399]
Owen, N., Healy, G. N., Matthews, C. E., & Dunstan, D. W. (2010). Too much sitting: the population-health science of sedentary behavior. Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 38(3), 105.