Americans Spend More Time Sitting Than Ever—And It’s Shortening Our Lives

Americans Spend More Time Sitting Than Ever—And It’s Shortening Our Lives

Sedentary behavior is linked to a host of health problems, including obesity and heart disease

Human beings were designed to move but, unfortunately, way too many of us are not moving nearly enough. It’s taking quite a toll on our health, including raising our risk for heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.

A January 2019 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at nearly 8,000 U.S. adults aged 45 and older and estimated that replacing total or prolonged sedentary time with either light- or moderate-to-vigorous physical activity would lower their risk of dying.

“There has been a lot of focus recently on sedentary lifestyle and how it might affect cardiovascular health,” says Daniel Edmundowicz, MD, chief of cardiology at Temple University Hospital and medical director of the Temple Heart and Vascular Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“We’re focused on cardiovascular health because it’s the number one killer of men and women in this country,” he says. “The lifestyle modification piece, including physical activity, is important to talk about. It’s often overlooked, and most people want to do the right thing for their health.”

How sedentary are Americans?
Whether at work or at home, the majority of Americans are sitting more and moving less. This trend extends across age groups, from young children to older adults.

An April 2019 study published in JAMA examined the sitting habits of almost 52,000 Americans, beginning as young as age five, between 2001 and 2016. Researchers found that computer use outside of work or school significantly increased over that time period, leading to an uptick in sedentary behavior. Thirty to 43 percent of participants used a computer for 2 or more hours per day, while 13 to 25 percent used a computer for 3 or more hours each day.

The study also highlighted that the majority of people of all ages spend at least two hours per day sitting to watch television or videos. Specifically, the prevalence of sedentary viewing habits was seen in 62 percent of children, 59 percent of adolescents and 65 percent of adults. Even more worrisome, 28 to 38 percent of those across all age groups watched three or more hours of TV or videos per day, while 13 to 23 percent watched four or more hours.

This is on top of the sedentary behaviors Americans already display at work and school. A November 2018 study, also published in JAMA, found that among almost 6,000 adults, 25.7 percent reported sitting for more than eight hours per day. Even worse, 44.5 percent reported that they were inactive, meaning they engaged in no moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity each day.

What amount of physical activity do you need?
If you’re groaning at the idea of joining a gym or believe you have to run marathons, don’t worry. All it really takes is a moderate level of physical activity several times each day, says Dr. Edmundowicz. Walking briskly fits that bill. If you want to do more, that’s great, too.

According to the physical activity guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), adults should still get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. Keep in mind that if you can get closer to 300 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 150 minutes of more strenuous activity, it’s even better. Children are encouraged to move at least an hour per day. But every bit of exercise counts—even if it’s just for a minute or two.

“When we move,” Edmundowicz says, “we involve the major muscle groups and increase our metabolic rate. Movement allows us to use energy and set a metabolic rate that’s more favorable than the rate for someone who’s not using those major muscle groups. It has beneficial effects on heart rate and blood pressure.”

What are the health risks of sitting?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 71.6 percent of the U.S. adult population is overweight, while 40 percent are considered obese. Obesity is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other serious health problems. Standing and moving burns additional calories, which may help you lose weight. In turn, weight loss improves heart and overall health.

There’s no question that doing formal exercise most days—for example, running, walking, or taking a class at the gym—has substantial heart benefits. “However, if you spend much of your time sitting, (as so many of us do), you’re still at risk for cardiovascular disease.

While various studies have suggested that anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour of exercise each day can offset health risks related to sitting, there is still no consensus or definitive answer. Even more alarming, moderate exercise may not eliminate the risk of death for people who still sit more than 8 hours per day.

How can you get moving?
If you, like many Americans, find yourself sitting all day, what can you do to improve your health?

The solution is actually very simple, says Edmundowicz. Just get up and move for short periods throughout the day. Take a walk around the office. If your path includes walking up and down steps, all the better, he says. Set the timer on your phone for 20 or 30 minutes or use an app to remind you to get up. Moving for any amount of time, even a minute or two, is beneficial. The point is that you want to incorporate these mini bursts of movement throughout your day, every day, whether you’re at work, school or home.

When it comes to building physical activity into your day-to-day life, it helps to be creative and to keep an open mind. For example:

  • Add steps to your routine. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park farther from the door, or hold “walking meetings” with colleagues.
  • Make fitness fun. Exercise shouldn’t be a slog: find activities you actually enjoy doing—think Frisbee, jump rope, Zumba—and have a partner join you to double the fun.
  • Don’t take things lying down. Stand while talking on the phone or watching TV. Use commercials for short exercise sprints, like jumping jacks, planks, squats or light stretches.
  • Remember that chores count. Yard work, laundry and other cleaning tasks can help you rack up more steps.
  • Make it a family affair. If you have children, schedule family outings such as bike rides, walks or trips to the park.
  • Think outside the chair. Invest in an exercise ball. If you must give your feet a rest and sit down, whether at your desk or in front of the TV, balancing on a ball engages core muscles to keep you stable.
  • Keep count. Using a tracker, like the Sharecare app (available for iOS and Android), helps you keep tabs on how many steps you’re logging—and how you’re building your endurance over time.

The important point, says Edmundowicz, is that many heart attacks and strokes are preventable. “Whatever you can work into your lifestyle, whether it’s a complete workout or 10-minute bouts of exercise, it will be beneficial.”

Medically reviewed in April 2019.

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