How many hours of exercise do you do per week? Three? Four? Five? If so, well done! Even just a couple of hours of exercise can have a big impact on how you look and feel. Hitting the gym or going for a run a few times a week can help build muscle, burn fat, and improve your fitness, as well as being beneficial to your health.
How many hours of exercise do you do per week? Three? Four? Five? If so, well done! Even just a couple of hours of exercise can have a big impact on how you look and feel. Hitting the gym, going for a run a couple of times a week, or even just going for brisk walks can help build muscle, burn fat, and improve your fitness, as well as being beneficial to your health.
However, before you congratulate yourself too much, it's important to remember that even if you exercise regularly, you may be still classed as sedentary. A sedentary lifestyle has been closely linked to many serious health risks.
What does it mean to be sedentary?
A sedentary lifestyle can be defined as one that involves very little incidental or purposeful physical activity. With many of us now working from home due to COVID-19, our incidental physical activity levels may have reduced as our daily commuting routines have been curtailed. The characteristics of sedentarism include spending a lot of time sitting or lying down, long periods spent watching TV, playing video games, or reading, or using a computer, phone, or smartphone for much of the day. While a lot of us do these things fairly regularly, a large percentage of the population lead habitually sedentary lives, even if exercise is part of your weekly schedule.
Not so many years ago, most people were very physically active. Manual labour jobs were much more common, and labour-saving devices were scarce. Walking and cycling were common forms of transport, and leisure time was spent outdoors rather than in front of a TV or computer.
Modern technology means that opportunities for physical activity can be a bit harder to come by. Many of us tend to drive relatively short distances instead of walking, and spend our leisure time being passively entertained. It's very easy to spend days at a time either sitting or lying down. Physical movement, for many of us, has become all but optional.
How can regular exercisers also be classified as being too sedentary? There are 168 hours in a week. Even if you exercise for five hours a week, you could still be inactive for the remaining 163 hours. That's 97% of the time. While exercise IS undeniably beneficial, even regular workouts will not completely offset the dangers of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.
Sitting disease – the physical and mental dangers of sedentarism
In the same way that exercise and physical activity is good for every aspect of your health, being sedentary has a similar all-encompassing effect. In fact, it’s hard to think of an aspect of your health that is not affected by prolonged sitting and inactivity.
This has given rise to the name “sitting disease” – a blanket term encompassing all the risk factors associated with prolonged periods of sedentarism. Some of the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle include:
Obesity – being sedentary uses very little energy, and prolonged sitting causes your metabolism to slow down. Just 20 minutes of sitting starts to inhibit your metabolism. Inactivity and surplus calories will lead to fat gain.
Type 2 diabetes – lack of activity increases fat mass and insulin resistance, leading to increased levels of blood glucose. These are two of the leading causes of diabetes.
Some types of cancer – especially very hard-to-treat colorectal cancer.
Cardiovascular disease – being sedentary can have a very negative impact on all aspects of heart and circulatory health, including blood pressure, circulation, and heart function.
Increased risk of blood clots – long periods of sitting in the same position can cause blood clots and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This can cause strokes and heart attacks.
Sluggish digestion – physical activity helps keep your digestive system working properly. The less active you are, the slower your digestive system will be, and the more likely you are to suffer things like constipation, indigestion, and heartburn.
Osteoporosis – lack of physical activity can lead to weak, porous bones that are more prone to fracture. Osteoporosis is the leading cause of fractures in older people.
Poor posture – sitting all day can have an adverse effect on your posture. The muscles on the front of your body tighten and shorten, while the muscles on the back of your body lengthen and weaken. This puts a lot of stress on your joints and can lead to back, shoulder, and neck pain.
Musculoskeletal problems – most sitting tasks are very repetitive, such as typing or using a computer mouse. This can cause things like repetitive strain injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Reduced immune system function – Physical activity is inextricably linked with improved immune system functioning.
Muscle weakness – muscles soon begin to atrophy and weaken during periods of inactivity. This can lower your metabolic rate, leading to easier weight gain, and could increase your risk of falls.
As well as being bad for your physical health, being sedentary can adversely impact mental health also. Lack of physical activity has been linked to an increased risk of developing a mental health condition and sedentarism can also affect things like productivity, creativity, and memory.
How to move more at work
If you work from home or have an office job, it may at time feel difficult to avoid being sedentary. After all, your absence will soon be apparent you if you start breaking up your work day with long walks! However, with a little creativity and effort, it is possible to be less sedentary at work, even if you have an otherwise desk-bound job. See how many of these strategies you can use per day.
Walk or cycle to work – easy access to mechanised transport means that a lot of us don’t walk as much as we could or should. If your commute is only a few kilometres you could try to start and end your working day with a walk or cycle. If you live too far from work to walk or cycle the whole way, consider parking further away or getting off your train or bus a few stops earlier and walking the remainder of your journey.
Stand up to take phone calls – the simple act of standing can be enough to restart your metabolism and boost circulation. If you have to make or receive phone calls during your working day, use them as opportunities to stand up.
Move your rubbish bin away from your desk – the next time you need to throw out some garbage, you’ll have to get up and walk a few steps to reach your bin. This might sound insignificant, but each time you get up and sit back down involves doing a couple of metabolism and circulation-boosting squats.
Stop using the elevator and escalator – use the stairs to inject your workday with more walking. Look for excuses to visit other floors in your office, taking the stairs every time. If you work in a tall building and taking the stairs all the way is impractical, you can always jump out of the lift a couple of floors early so you can still take a couple of flights of stairs to get to your intended floor. You can also try using the stairs at the opposite end of your building to increase the amount of walking you need to do.
Use a standing desk – while a standing desk won’t do much for your daily calorie expenditure, standing up to work is definitely better for your muscles, posture, and circulation than sitting down all day. While a standing desk cannot compare to walking or other physical activities, anything that leads to less time spent sitting is beneficial.
If you don't have access to a standing desk, you can create your own by placing your chair on your desk and your laptop on the chair. This should put your keyboard at the right height to work while standing. Also, consider a treadmill desk that allows you to walk while you work.
Visit nearby colleagues in person instead of emailing or calling them – use communication as an opportunity to get away from your desk and walk. This strategy can also increase productivity and strengthen interpersonal relationships.
Walk to the water cooler – hydration is important for your health so you may have a bottle of water on your desk. Good job! Better still, break up periods of sitting by walking to a water cooler for a drink. Better yet, go and visit a water cooler on a different floor, taking the stairs to enjoy even more benefits.
Set a stand-up alarm – when you are engrossed in a task, it’s very easy to lose track of how long you have been sat in the same position. Break your sitting cycle by setting an alarm that sounds every 30 minutes. When it goes off, stand up and move. Even a few seconds of shoulder and neck rolls will help ward off muscle tension and increase your circulation. There are apps you can use for this purpose which flash up on your screen so that you cannot ignore them.
Instead of just standing up, you could also knock out a quick set of a bodyweight exercises and/or stretches. Alternate between squats, lunges, twists and stretches throughout your day.
Go for a walk at lunchtime – while it may be tempting to eat your lunch at your desk, doing so is just another cause of workplace sedentarism. Instead of eating lunch at your desk, grab your food, and go for a walk. You don't have to go far – even 15 minutes of walking can help offset the dangers of prolonged sitting.
Stand up for coffee breaks – don’t swap one chair for another during your coffee break. Instead, sip your coffee while standing to add a little extra movement and activity to your day.
Try walking meetings – walking can help increase creativity. Instead of boardroom meetings, take your team for a walk. This is not only good for your health but may increase productivity too. Walking boosts blood flow, and that includes to your brain.
Squeeze in a lunchtime workout – if you have an hour lunch break, you have just enough time to squeeze in a quick workout. A midday workout is an excellent way to break up an otherwise mostly sedentary day. If you can't get to a gym you can always do a quick workout in a nearby park, communal space or even an empty room at work, without the need for any expensive equipment.
While regular exercise is undeniably good for your health, it is not enough to offset an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. Too much sitting at work and passive entertainment at home mean that many of us sit for 12 or more hours per day. That can have a very detrimental effect on your health.
Sitting less and moving more will require conscious effort, but it’s not exactly tiring. In fact, you should find that the less time you spend sitting, the more energy you’ll have – and that includes mental energy as well.