How a Sedentary Lifestyle Affects Your Health

25 March 2019

No one can argue that the sedentary lifestyle most of us lead today is not healthy.  Yet nowadays, approximately 86% of American workers find themselves tethered to a desk and computer for 40 hours or more per week.  The trend of constant sitting has led to a whole plethora of health related issues. From an evolutionary (and survival) standpoint, the invention of technology took us very quickly from an active “moving” species to a population that sits an average of 13 hours per day.  Add sleeping hours to that and it leaves very few hours, or even minutes, to be active. Inactivity is making us chronically sick and putting a huge burden on our health care system. It’s unfortunately a very sad reality of the world today.

How to define a sedentary lifestyle?

A sedentary lifestyle is defined as a lack of regular physical activity.  Rather up to 20% of American spend the majority of their days in the positions of sitting, reclining or lying down, all of which require very little energy expenditure.  According to the CDC’s guidelines, this means you are sedentary if you are getting less than 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.

The 3 categories of health most affected by inactivity.

There are three major categories related to health that a sedentary lifestyle affects:  musculoskeletal, cardiometabolic, and mental health. Balance between these three is crucial to enjoy life to the fullest.  Without this balance, chronic illness becomes a sad reality of everyday life. Sitting is making us unnecessarily sick and causing premature deaths due to these illnesses.

Musculoskeletal health and a sedentary lifestyle.

The musculoskeletal system is what gives our body its actual shape.  This is accomplished via bones, ligaments, tendons and all other connective tissue that literally hold us “together.”  This system is optimized and runs most efficiently when it is used frequently and adequately stressed. Just as we add strength of the muscle and bones through regular exercise and exertion, our body’s tissue can also rapidly diminish with inactivity.  The common phrase “use it or lose” is most definitely a factor in musculoskeletal health yet maintaining this health is very important throughout the human lifespan. However, musculoskeletal health gets even more important as we age to minimize natural loss of muscle mass, tissue extensibility and bone strength that comes with each decade of life after 50 years of age.  With inactivity, musculoskeletal fitness will rapidly deteriorate in as little as two weeks (while it can take six to eight weeks to make noticeable gains when regularly exercising).  Here are some specific risk factors you can expect with prolonged sitting and infrequent exercise and movement:

  • Osteoporosis.  It is defined as excessive weakening of the bone matrix that puts a person at higher risk for bone fracture with activities that wouldn’t normally cause it (such as light lifting, reaching, bending, etc.).  Fifty-five percent of Americans over the age of 50 years old have osteoporosis.  While some loss of bone density is normal with age, osteoporosis is not and can lead to a low quality of life.   Hip fracture is one of the biggest complications associated with osteoporosis and correlates to a significant increase in chance of morbidity.  There are a lot of risk factors that can lead to osteoporosis, but leading a less sedentary lifestyle is one major aspect that can be controlled.  

  • Risk of falls. Our body’s ability to balance on two feet is possible with a complex synergy between our vestibular system (the inner ear), eye sight and sensation (what the body is telling our brain about the world around us via touch and movement).   Regular stimulation of these systems through daily activity is crucial for optimal coordination. When it is used repeatedly, the brain can easily coordinate and make sense of what the body needs to do to stay upright and off the ground, no matter how complex or simple the task may be.  Sitting all day puts little strain on our balancing system and can make it hard for the brain to know what to do in situations that require you to be on your feet. Loss of balance and falling can obviously cause injury and can be dangerous when combined with health issues like osteoporosis.

  • Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT).  When the body’s major muscles groups aren’t regularly used the risk of developing a blood clot rapidly raises, particularly in the legs where it is more commonly known as a DVT.  Regular use of the large muscles in the legs is what keeps blood moving at a healthy speed back to the heart.  Without this use, our blood will literally pool in the lower legs and feet. This stagnancy can cause the blood to start coagulating if it goes on for too long. This is how DVTs most commonly occur and can cause of lot of pain and require close monitoring due to all the risk factors associated with blood clots (see the “blood clot” section below).  The best way to avoid a DVT is to move often. The more the better.

  • Low muscle mass. Muscle use and strength is essential for all activities of daily living, no matter how big or small.  Without the power of our muscles we would not be able to move at all (of course in coordination with the rest of the musculoskeletal system).  Low muscle mass is associated with poor endurance, low bone density, lower metabolism and an increased risk of hospitalization.

  • Joint pain.  According to the U.S. Department of Health, pain is the top reason for Americans to seek medical advice.   Chronic pain is the biggest reason for long term disability. Some of the most common issues that are regularly treated by medical professionals are spine pain (such as muscle strain, disk degeneration, radiculopathy, and tingling/numbness of the extremities) and osteoarthritis of the joints (most commonly knees, hips and shoulders).  These joint issues can be caused by a sedentary lifestyle and lead to rapid deterioration of the spine or other joints and ultimately pain. This lack of movement causes uneven wear of the joints and decreases vital blood flow to the joint tissues. Plus, inactivity is also correlated to poorer pain management which can exacerbate and cause chronic issues.  Luckily, exercise has been proven to be one of the most effective treatments for spine and joint pain since it promotes adequate circulation and balance to the joint.  

Cardiometabolic health and a sedentary lifestyle.

It has been found that prolonged sitting (greater than 9 hours per day or more than 2 hours at a time) slows down our body’s metabolism.  It should make sense that sitting results in a slower burn of energy throughout the day. This majorly affects that way our body regulates all of its vital functions related to controlling blood sugar levels, blood pressure and fat metabolism.  This can lead to a shortened quantity of life due to the onset of chronic disease. Here are the biggest health concerns we face today related to cardiometabolic health:

  • Insulin sensitivity and diabetes.  Diabetes is by far the most common metabolic related illness.  Diabetes (type II) is a result of poor management of high blood sugar that causes the body to become insensitive to the insulin produced needed to store sugar for energy.  (As opposed to type I Diabetes that is caused by a genetic problem with insulin production.) This can lead to problems with weight, eye sight, sensation (numb and painful fingers and toes), and onset of kidney disease (especially in women) to name a few.  High blood sugar is linked to poor diet and exercise. There is a 91% increase in risk of developing diabetes with a sedentary lifestyle.   The theory behind the increased risk is that the body needs to work much harder to absorb the sugar in your body when sitting.  Diabetes is a common health issue in the U.S. today despite the surprising fact that most cases (over 90%) are preventable through modifiable lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise.

  • Obesity.  Obesity is defined as having a body mass index over 30.  Being overweight and obese affects as many as 60% of adults in the U.S.   Obesity puts excessive strain on the musculoskeletal system in addition to affecting the body’s ability to complete its vital functions optimally.  Obesity statistics are projected to keep increasing as people continue to make poor lifestyle choices. Hopefully this will change as people are better educated and understand that their lifestyle choices can make a big difference in their health.  

  • Cardiovascular disease. When we choose to live a sedentary life, the strain on the heart significantly rises for several reasons.  First and foremost, the heart is a muscle that also needs to be exercised regularly.  From there, inactivity can lead to chemical discrepancies in the body’s basic chemistry and hormone creation.  These imbalances quickly make the heart “sick” due to issues like high cholesterol and high blood pressure. These health issues are also further correlated to increases in heart related problems such as stroke, heart attack, and sexual function (due to poor blood flow from plaque buildup).  

  • Blood clots.  Blood clots can happen anywhere in the body.  There are a variety of causes such as cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or atherosclerosis), severe injury or just plain inactivity (DVT- see above section).  When a blood clot results in the blockage of blood to any part of the body it becomes an health issue that needs immediate attention that  can lead to severe pain, disability, or death from heart attack or stroke. A study found that sitting more than 10 hours in a day (in more than 2 hour increments at a time) increased the risk of blood clots by 2.8 times.  When it comes to adequate blood flow to the entire body, staying active is so important.

  • Increased risk of dementia. Dementia is a decline in mental function typically associated with aging.  As we age the brain slowly loses some of its connections and coordination resulting in this decline.  How big this decline is can be affected by overall health and genetic predisposition. Amazingly, it has been found that inactivity increases the risk of developing dementia as much as genetic predisposition does (meaning it runs in the family).  This is because both inactivity and genetic makeup have been found to increase “plaques” in the brain that lead to poor brain use, loss of function and poor quality of life that is associated with dementia.  Keep the odds in your favor and stay active!

  • Non-alchoholic fatty liver disease.  This is now considered the most common cause of liver disease in Western cultures.  Lifestyle factors play a major role in developing this disease, with diet and exercise being the biggest factors.

  • Lung disease. Lung disease refers to issues with the lungs that affect a person’s ability to either get air in or out.  These can include chronic pulmonary obstruction disease (COPD), asthma and emphysema. Since getting oxygen into the lungs and blood stream and carbon dioxide out of the body are vital for life, lung disease leads to significant discomfort and medical disability.  A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to an increased risk of developing lung disease since it leads to the lungs working inefficiently.

  • Thyroid function.  Hypothyroidism has become a common health issue in today’s society, especially in women.  The thyroid regulates our growth hormones which are a key part of the body’s ability to rebuild itself on a daily basis from life stresses.  Low growth hormone can cause issues with low metabolism, weight gain, hair loss, heart palpitations and trouble sleeping.  Since a sedentary lifestyle also leads to issues like hormone imbalance, poor weight management and low metabolism, hypothyroidism can result and cause a rapid downward spiral of your health.

  • Risk of cancer.  There is a rapid increase in risk of specific cancers such as breast, colon, lung, endometrial cancer when all the factors listed above are involved.  Inactivity and cardiometabolic illnesses create a poor regulated and chronically inflamed environment for your body’s own cellular processes.  This increases the risk of mutation and cancer cell growth.

Mental health and a sedentary lifestyle.

Mental health is becoming a major global health burden.  Poor diet, inactivity, less social interaction and addiction to technology are a few factors that are contributing to this growing problem.  Mental health is about a healthy balance of hormones that affect the brain (such as dopamine, endorphins and serotonin.) With prolonged sitting, these hormones can be chronically low and literally leave you feeling depressed.  The biggest mental health issue that people seek out medical attention for is depression. However, poor mental health can be manifested in several different ways:

  • Depression.  Characterized as feeling hopeless or having little interest in normal daily activities, depression is a very debilitating illness affecting up to 15% of the U.S. population.

  • Anxiety.  Anxiety is depression’s close cousin that is frequently overlooked in today’s society.  We all tend to feel chronically overstressed in our fast paced world and anxiety has sadly become a normal part of many people’s lives.  Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to any of the health issues discussed in this article due to an imbalance in hormones. A regular exercise routine can help combat both anxiety and depression to establish a feeling of well-being and hormone balance.

  • Trouble concentrating. Brain fog is a very common term used nowadays to describe the inability to stay on task and complete a job effectively.  Inactivity can play a major role in brain fog and make it hard to maintain adequate work-life balance and general life motivation.  

  • Sleep quality. Insomnia and poor sleep quality are also becoming more common.  Poor sleep can lead to low energy, poor mood and onset of other chronic diseases since the body isn’t allowed adequate recuperation time each evening.  Exercise has been found to be an effective tool for improving both mood and sleep quality.

For mental wellness, in addition to having a mindfulness routine (such as yoga and meditation), exercise is the number one drug free treatment for stress, anxiety and depression.

Exercise isn’t enough to negate all that sitting time.

The scariest part about a sedentary lifestyle is that even if exercise is incorporated into your routine (after sitting all day at work), the sheer number of hours spent sitting will still affect you.  Plus, most of us sit after work for at least 1-2 more hours at home to watch TV, eat, and participate in other leisure activities. Exercising for the recommended minimum of thirty minutes three times per week is such a small percentage of your week.  That small amount of time makes it hard to negate all the sitting time! So what can we do?!

Easy tips for combatting a sedentary lifestyle.

The theme of all the health issues that come with a sedentary lifestyle is illness from lack of regular use.  No matter what system it is affecting, if you aren’t properly stressing your body and mind then there are bound to be problems down the road.  Sitting simply doesn’t provide enough of the stimulus the body needs to thrive and be healthy. Here are some simple ways to start increasing the healthy stresses your body needs to prevent chronic problems down the road:

  • Take frequent breaks from sitting while at work: AT LEAST every hour.  If you tend to get absorbed in what you’re doing, try setting an alarm as a reminder.  Stand up, stretch, go for a short walk, have a drink of water or whatever else will get your blood moving.

  • Invest in a standing desk and/or bike desk (bonus: they improve your focus and productivity).  Who says you can’t move and work at the same time?

  • Make small changes outside the office:

  1. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  2. Park at the end of the parking lot to add in a few extra steps.
  3. Try walking or biking to work if possible.
  4. Do small bouts of exercise throughout the day.  You can add simple exercises like squats, heel raises or jumping jacks to your day every time you need a break or go the bathroom.
  5. Try exercising while watching TV at night if there is something you don’t want to miss.  This might mean riding a stationary bike or doing small bouts of exercise on commercial breaks.

  • Incorporate a healthy diet into your daily routine.  Bring healthy snacks and meals to work to avoid a vending machine binge. Shoot for a diet high in healthy fats and whole foods such as fruits, vegetable, grain and sustainable meat.  Diet has actually been found to be more important than exercise in preventing onset of chronic illness. There is the quote “you can’t exercise away a crappy diet”. This is even truer with a sedentary lifestyle!

  • If you can’t get out of your chair or take a break on a particularly busy day, at least move the legs.  Ankle pumps, butt squeezes or even simple deep breathing can help promote circulation in the body.

  • Optimize your workout routine.  Keep your workouts interesting to keep you motivated throughout the work week.  Work out frequently (more is better in this case) and try for moderate to high intensity (depending on what you can tolerate).  Make sure to incorporate a mix of

1. Lifting 1-2 times per week for all major muscle groups.
2. Pushing your cardiovascular strength with running, cardio machines or plyometrics at least 3 times per week.
3. Stretching regularly to prevent stiffness from too much sitting and help recover sore muscles from exercise.
4. Balancing exercise (yoga, single leg exercises, standing on softer surfaces, etc.) to keep your body fit and healthy.  
5. Or a combo of them all at the same time!  

As you can now see, we cannot afford to sit our entire lives.  The consequences are rather dire. As we become sicker as a nation something has to give.  A healthier tomorrow begins with making better choices today. They don’t have to be drastic, but they do need start today.   Don’t be another health statistic and start making small changes now!