What risk to health does a sedentary lifestyle pose?

Sedentary lifestyles have accelerated during the pandemic.  Lockdowns, restrictions on social interactions and the normalisation of working from home have impacted the amount of movement most people do on a daily basis.   It has slowed everyone down.  What is sedentary behaviour and what risk does a sedentary lifestyle pose to your health?

Sedentary behaviour means any form of sitting or lying down while awake which expends 1.5 METs or less.  METs means metabolic equivalent of task and is a measure of the energy expenditure when performing a task.

Across the world 4 to 5 million deaths a year are attributed to physical inactivity.  The WHO has declared that it has become the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality contributing to the cause of 6% of total deaths.   The top three risk factors to global mortality are high blood pressure at 13%, tobacco use at 9% and high blood glucose at 6%. Medscape conducted a global study which suggests that 1 in 14 deaths across the world are a result of inactivity.

In the 1960s, one in two men had a physically active job.   By 2010, only one in five men had such a job.   Technology at work, the development of household appliances, increased car usage and pastimes such as watching TV, films or gaming have contributed to people limiting the amount of movement they are required to do each day for work, travel, household chores and leisure time.

The average adult spends 50-70% of their time sitting.  

Adult ageWaking hours spent sitting
Working age9.5 hours
65 to 7410 hours
75+11 hours

Adults spend 65 to 75% of their working day sitting.   Figures are showing that somewhere between 60 and 85% of the World’s population are now leading sedentary lifestyles.   This statistic is not affected by how developed a country is.  Horrifyingly, two-thirds of children face serious health conditions in the future as a consequence of their current inactive lifestyles.

So what are the trends across the world?

The world maps below depicts the amount of insufficient physical activity in men and women in 2016. These have been produced by the Lancet Global Health (see Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 358 population-based surveys with 1·9 million participants – The Lancet Global Health).

Country prevalence of insufficient physical activity in men in 2016
Country prevalence of insufficient physical activity in women in 2016

Neither of the above graphics take into account how the pandemic has exacerbated the above trends.

What risk does a sedentary lifestyle have on my body?

Your body burns fewer calories meaning you are likely to be putting on weight particularly around your middle.   If this continues, you run the risk of becoming obese.  Any excess body fat around your waist can mean that your cholesterol levels may no longer be normal.

Your metabolic rate will likely reduce meaning it has trouble breaking down fats and relating blood sugar levels and blood pressure.   This could lead to various problems such as type 2 diabetes, kidney damage, high blood pressure, damage to nerve endings, sight and kidneys to name a few.

You may start suffering from higher cholesterol levels which could render you at risk from having a stroke, coronary heart disease or peripheral vascular disease.

You may notice yourself losing muscle strength and endurance.  Your bones could get weaker and lose their mineral content. This could lead to osteoporosis and fractures if you fall.  Alternatively you could develop musculo-skeletal conditions like back, neck and sciatica pain which impinge on your ability to move.

Some cancers such as colon, breast and uterine have an increased risk of developing from inactivity. 

Your mental health may diminish resulting in depression and anxiety as a result of sedentary behaviour.

You may find your immune system is no longer as effective, your body suffers more frequently from inflammation and you develop a hormonal imbalance.  You could also develop chronic kidney disease.

Overall, inactivity could result in your premature death.

sedentary lifestyle
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Know your risk from a sedentary lifestyle

By leading a sedentary lifestyle you can expect your risk of becoming obese, contracting heart disease or type 2 diabetes to double.   Your ‘all causes of mortality’ risk will increase by 1.5 times.

The WHO has cited physical inactivity to be one of the main causes in 21-25% of breast and colon cancer cases, and 27% of diabetes cases.   Sedentary lifestyles are responsible for around 30% of ischaemic heart disease.

In fact, someone sitting for eight hours a day with no physical activity has the same risk of dying as someone who is obese or is a smoker.  Many publications and headlines have stated that “sitting is the new smoking”.   However, the University of South Australia points out that smoking increases the risk of premature death by 180% compared to the 10-20% increase in risk of early death created by inactivity.

A report published by the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2010 showed that women who sit for more than 6 hours a day during their leisure time have their all-cause death rate increased by 40% compared to those who reported sitting for less than 3 hours a day during their leisure time.   For men, the figure is 20%.

Jon Muller of Ergonomic Trends has beautifully set out some shocking statistics here.  

Mitigate your risk of a sedentary lifestyle

By just taking a brisk 10 minute walk a day, people who have 2 or more serious or chronic conditions such as asthma and cancer can increase their life expectancy by up to three years.   Just 22 mins of brisk exercise a day can increase it to five years.

Around the world, the general consensus is that adults need 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.   Even if you are meeting this goal, if you then spend hours sitting and not moving, you have not reduced your risk.  Even standing helps.   Your body was designed to keep moving.  So what else can you do?

  1. Stand up and walk more every 20 to 30 mins
  2. Get a fitness tracker to monitor your steps.   You should aim for a minimum of 10,000 a day

At home:

  1. Do more chores around the home and garden
  2. Walk or stand during TV commercials
  3. Spend less time watching TV or gaming
  4. Take up new hobbies which involve moving your body

In the office:

  1. Ask for a standing desk at work
  2. Have walking meetings or stand in your meetings
  3. Take the stairs
  4. Visit someone’s desk rather than emailing or phoning them
  5. For every 20 mins of sitting, stand for 8 mins and walk for 2 mins
  6. Walk or stand during tea and coffee breaks
  7. Set reminders for every 30 minutes
  8. Take a walk during your lunch break
  9. Stand when taking a phone call or get a wireless headset so you can walk during a call
  10. Use the furthest away printer
  11. Get your office to remove personal bins and have only one in the kitchen

When you are out and about :

  1. Stand on public transport
  2. Walk more or get off the bus a stop earlier
  3. Take the stairs option rather than the escalator
  4. Walk up or down escalators

Weird fact

As I read up about sedentary behaviour, I found many shocking and horrifying facts.   None made the cut for my usually light-hearted weird fact paragraph.   The only thing that changed as I created this post was that I started it sitting down, and finished it standing up doing mini squats.  If you need motivation to get moving, read some of the sources I discovered below and learn more about the risks of being sedentary, it will get you moving within 5 minutes.


Personal Risk Geek

The Personal Risk Geek is passionate about assessing personal risk. If you have ever wondered how much of a risk something is, find out here.

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