Sarah Maybank - Sept 23 2022

Revitalise Your Health: Effective Strategies to Combat a Sedentary Lifestyle

Sitting at desk with feet up - sedentary lifestyle whilst working

Don’t drink and drive. Look both ways before crossing the road. Eat a healthy diet. Get plenty of fresh air… We are all bombarded with health and safety messages seemingly 24/7.

 But who’d have thought that one of the most basic of human activities, one we all do, should come with a safety warning of its own?

 This activity flies under the radar. But it comes with a whole host of health hazards, and it’s waging war on the lives of millions of people worldwide.

 It’s the simple action of sitting down.

 Sinking into a sofa or taking your place in an office chair at the start of a working day might seem like the most natural thing in the world. But our increasing tendency to remain seated, to engage in a sedentary lifestyle, is having a disastrous effect on our health.

Family video gaming whilst seated
Watching TV whilst seated

Do you sit for long periods whilst performing everyday activities such as playing video games or binge watching streaming tv services?

Causes of a sedentary lifestyle

Our comfortable Western lifestyles are having an adverse effect on our mobility. Increasing car use means people are less likely to walk or cycle. The pandemic meant people were more likely to engage in sedentary activities such as gaming and watching TV as gyms and leisure centres shut down. If you drive to work (or work from home), spend your day sitting in front of a computer screen, and then enjoy evenings and weekends watching Netflix, you’re living a sedentary lifestyle.

In short, a sedentary lifestyle involves very little exercise and a lot of sitting and lying down. The couch potato existence is infecting our work and social lives and it’s affecting our hearts, our minds and our bodies. And the bad news? Regular exercise might not be helping. 

What are the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle?

Back in 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that physical inactivity was a leading cause of disease and disability. Our undemanding lifestyles are setting us up for conditions that (at best) require medication and in a worst-case scenario, can prove to be lethal. Aches and pains in the back, neck, shoulders, and knees are a common effect of being inactive throughout the day, and worryingly, a wide range of chronic conditions are associated.

For a start, HDL cholesterol is lowered. Less HDL means there's less good cholesterol to remove bad cholesterol from the arteries. Blood flow slows down, which allows fatty acids to build up in the blood vessels. This means a sedentary lifestyle can lead to heart disease. Recent studies have shown that extended sitting during the day can increase blood pressure, which is also a key risk factor for heart disease.

People who reported sitting eight or more hours daily and were not very physically active were seven times more at risk of having a stroke than people who spent fewer than four hours being sedentary, according to a study reported by the American Heart Foundation. Researchers have also found a statistically significant higher risk for three types of cancer — colon, endometrial, and lung.

Lifestyle change means more active movement

“The human body is not designed to be sedentary.”― Steven Magee

The body’s ability to process fats is decreased while seated, meaning fat is stored, increasing the chance of insulin resistance. A sedentary lifestyle and obesity are also closely linked. It is thought that inactivity reduces bone mass, potentially leading to osteoporosis, and recent research has also found more time sitting had a negative impact on mental health.

The more sedentary we are, the higher the risk to our health, according to the UK government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities. Physical inactivity is associated with one in six deaths in the UK and is estimated to cost the country £7.4 billion annually (including £0.9 billion to the NHS alone). The UK population is about 20% less active than in the 1960s. If current trends continue, it will be 35% less active by 2030. The inactivity epidemic is a ticking timebomb. How can it be addressed?

Sedentary lifestyle solutions

Human physiology has barely evolved during the past 10,000 years, however lifestyles are very different. The technological age has revolutionised the way we live, including how much we move.

The human body is designed for hunter-gatherer activities such as roaming, running, climbing, and foraging for food. Our ancestors moved almost constantly. By comparison, we’re not using our bodies in the way they've evolved to function.

Unfortunately simply joining a gym or exercising more regularly is not enough. An hour of exercise has very little effect on overall energy expenditure. Two to three hours spent exercising out of a total of 168 each week won’t negate having been sedentary for the best part of a 40+ hour working week. A BMJ study (British Medical Journal) found that prolonged sitting increases the risk of serious illness and even death regardless of exercise. Harvard Health advises moving more every day to combat a sedentary lifestyle and points out that we are more likely to drop into sedentary behaviours as we get older.

So, although it’s not a bad idea to take up exercise in some form, be that weight training, team sports, aerobics or yoga, we need to be doing more, all day, every day.

Standing desk versus sitting in the office
Standing meeting at work

To combat sedentary - make simple changes to adopt an active lifestyle in everyday situations

It’s not difficult, however. Even simple activities such as standing up more can help people lose weight and keep it off, according to a review published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Standing up - even when standing still - burns more calories than sitting, hence the increasing popularity of standing desks. Potential health benefits of a standing desk are assumed based on the findings that long hours of sitting are linked with a higher risk of chronic ailments and premature death. Working while standing enhances circulation, improves posture, and can help with mood and focus.

Studies have shown that, after a meal, blood sugar levels return to normal faster on days a person spends more time standing. And standing, rather than sitting, can reduce the risk of shoulder and back pain.

How to become more active

The focus should be on a change in lifestyle, and as well as standing sessions to decrease sitting time, we need to increase movement consistently throughout the day. This might seem difficult at first for office workers but it is possible.

Consider cycling to work. If this is not feasible, when driving to work, park at the far end of the car park, or a few more streets away from the workplace in order to increase walking time. If travelling by train, get out before the usual stop and walk instead.

Take the stairs instead of the lift. If there are several flights of stairs to take, build it up gradually by alighting from the lift on a lower floor each week.

Use standing desks if they are available in order to improve circulation and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal problems. Instead of emailing colleagues, walk to their desks to speak to them. “Walking meetings” are becoming more popular, giving attendees an opportunity to stretch their legs and get some fresh air.

Stand up during meetings, and fight the norm, make it the done thing at your place of work that everyone stands for the first 15 minutes of every meeting. Standing up while on the phone also helps, as does taking a brisk walk at lunchtime.

How to combat a sedentary lifestyle when working from home

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused an immense change in working patterns, with an increase in hybrid working and working remotely full time. The use of Zoom meetings and lack of chances to walk to and from the office from parking spaces and train stations means it can be difficult to incorporate more movement into the working day. Again, a standing or adjustable height desk can help, as can taking a lunchtime walk.

Try installing a timer app on your phone. Apps based on the Pomodoro time management system divide the working day into 25-minute segments, with a five-minute break at the end of each one. Once your 25 minutes have finished, use the five-minute break to march or jog on the spot or to do a few sets of press-ups leaning on a kitchen counter. If space and budget allow, get an exercise bike and use the break time for a quick burst of cycling.

Getting active during your downtime

It’s easy to adjust lifestyles when away from work, without having to join a gym. Engaging in household chores and gardening are both helpful. When watching TV, stand up while folding laundry, and get up and move around during advert breaks. Try a few stretches or if there’s room, buy a kettlebell - start with a low weight - and swing it during the breaks. Video tutorials can be found online to help with safe usage. Gamers should try standing up while playing. Go for a brisk walk after work and do the same at weekends.

Suggestions for more active movement

Ways to be more active - at work, when working from home and in your downtime

Share your story

While the statistics surrounding a sedentary lifestyle might seem daunting it’s not difficult to fit movement into previously inactive lives. Many people are incorporating more movement into their daily lives. Are you one of them? Share your stories and successes in the comments below.

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