We’ve all been told to get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) each week. While some meet and excel the American Heart Association guideline, some may get a smaller amount of physical activity (PA), and some do not engage at all in PA. However, regardless of whether or not we meet the PA recommendation, most of us end up sitting for extended periods of time throughout the day due to a desk job, being a student, watching TV, traveling, and simply due to the nature of our society.
It is common to believe that because people are meeting the physical activity guidelines, sitting has no impact on their health. According to Hausenblas and Rhodes, “Even if people are meeting the physical activity guidelines of, for example, exercising at a moderate intensity for 150 minutes per week, yet spend most of the remaining waking hours left in sedentary activities, this has a negative impact on their health.” This means that regardless of how physically active you are, “sedentary behavior has negative health effects independent of physical activity (1).”
So what exactly is sedentary behavior? “Sedentary behavior refers to any waking activity characterized by little physical movement and an energy expenditure of less than or equal to 1.5 METS in either a sitting or reclining position (1).” This does not include light or mild physical activity. Light activity is usually 1.9-2.9 METS. Sedentary behaviors include watching TV, computer usage, traveling (car, airplane, train, etc), playing video games, reading, and any activity done while sitting. To help further distinguish between light PA and sedentary behavior, light or mild PA includes standing, walking, doing laundry, or washing dishes. Sedentary behavior is also not the equivalent of physical inactivity. The term physical inactivity is usually used to describe those who do not achieve sufficient amounts of MVPA (1).
So sitting is bad, but just how bad is it? “Emma Wilmot and colleagues (2012) reviewed 18 studies with about 800,000 participants that examined sedentary behavior and effects on health. They found that higher levels of sedentary behavior were associated with a 112% increase in the risk of diabetes, a 147% increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease, a 90% increase in the risk of cardiovascular mortality, and a 47% increase in the risk of all-cause mortality (1).” These associations were also independent of physical activity. The Mayo Clinic also notes that “Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns, including obesity and metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. What’s more, spending a few hours a week at the gym or otherwise engaged in moderate or vigorous activity doesn’t seem to significantly offset the risk.”
This should be your cue to stand up and move around! It is averaged that adults spend about 39% of their 24-hour day in sedentary behaviors (1). That’s almost 10 out of 24 hours each day spent in health deteriorating behavior! Also keep in mind that this is more time each day than we spend sleeping!
To help reduce the negative effects of sedentary behavior, minimize the time spent in prolonged sitting. Prolonged sitting is defined as sitting without a break for 1 hour. So if you’ve been sitting for an hour, you’ve been sitting for too long (1)! Get up and move around!
Basically, we need to engage more in MVPA and reduce the amount of time we spend in prolonged sitting or sedentary behavior. This seems like common sense and that it would be pretty easy to implement – Just stand up every hour and move around – but when we actually try to include these improvements in our lives, we seem to come up short. It’s not always easy to get up every hour and move around at work, especially when you’re pressured for time.
To remedy this, try to make small changes that either remind or force you to at least stand every hour. For example, using a smaller water bottle, say 10 oz, would be a great way to force you to get up to fill up the water bottle once it’s emptied. If you’re good at taking a few gulps fairly often, it should be pretty easy to drink 10 oz of water every hour. Assuming you work an eight-hour workday and will fill up the water bottle every hour, that’s an easy 80 oz of water for the day!
Another way to help increase the amount of standing and walking performed, is to have hourly reminders on your phone or smart watch. Fitbit has a feature that reminds the user hourly to get 150 steps in. This can be particularly useful in conjunction with using a smaller water bottle. If you haven’t achieved 150 steps in that hour, your smart watch, or phone, will remind you to get up and move, and if you haven’t drank any water, it can be a good reminder to drink your water and then go fill up the water bottle.
However, for those who are under a lot of pressure and are very time oriented, even standing up to quickly walk around your chair two times, or to stretch upwards or touch your toes, is much better than remaining seated. Also, taking a walk on a lunch break can do wonders for your physical, mental, social, and emotional health. It will also increase your MVPA minutes for the week if you walk fast enough! If you spend 30 minutes briskly walking on your lunch break (or even right before or after work) Monday through Friday, you’ve achieved your 150 minutes of moderate PA for the week without having to schedule in extra time for it, and you’ve reduced the amount of time you would have spent sitting.
The bottom line is that we need to start moving more and sitting less. This applies to all ages. If you can walk to the store instead of drive, walk. If you can play with your kids or pets instead of watch TV, play with your loved ones. If you can stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch, stand. If you can get a standing or treadmill desk, get it. If you can take a brisk walk once a day, and make sure to stand up at least once every hour, do it! Your heart will thank you.
1. Hausenblas, Heather A and Ryan E Rhodes. Exercise Psychology. 1st ed. Jones & Bartlett, 2017. Print.
2. “Sitting Risks: How Harmful Is Too Much Sitting? – Mayo Clinic”. Mayo Clinic. N.p., 2017. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.