How Being Sedentary Affects Your Health

Discover the health effects of being sedentary, including obesity and heart disease.

Someone pointing a remote control at a TV screen

Updated on March 14, 2024.

Human beings were designed to move and, when we spend too much time being sedentary it affects our health, raising the 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 [heart and blood vessel] 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? 

 Over the years, Americans have become more and more sedentary, and 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 2 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 3 or more hours of TV or videos per day, while 13 to 23 percent watched 4 or more hours. 

This is in addition to the sedentary behaviors Americans already have 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 8 hours per day. Even worse, 44.5 percent reported that they were inactive, meaning they never engaged in moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity each day. 

How much physical activity is recommended? 

According to the physical activity guidelines for Americans from the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity like brisk walking or dancing each week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity like running or jogging. 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? 

Spending much of your day being sedentary is linked to increased risk for obesity, heart disease, and premature death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 73.6 percent of the U.S. adult population is overweight, while 42.5 percent are considered obese. Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and other serious health problems. Moving burns additional calories, which may help with weight loss. In turn, weight loss improves heart and overall health. 

While various studies have suggested that between 30 minutes to an hour of exercise each day may offset health risks related to being sedentary, there is still no consensus or definitive answer. Moderate exercise may not eliminate these health risks for people who are sedentary more than 8 hours per day. 

How to get moving 

As you are able, moving for short periods throughout the day can have positive benefits on your health. 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 to incorporate these mini bursts of movement throughout your day, every day. 

Here are some tips for building physical activity into your day-to-day life: 

  • Add steps to your routine. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park farther from the door to buildings 
  • Make fitness fun. Find activities you actually enjoy doing—like Frisbee, dancing or jumping rope—and have a partner join you to share the fun. 
  • Stand up as you are able. Stand while talking on the phone or watching TV. Use commercials for short exercises, like jumping jacks, planks, squats or light stretches. 
  • Chores count. Yard work, laundry and other cleaning tasks can help keep you active
  • Bring your family. If you have children, schedule family outings such as bike rides, walks or trips to the park. 
  • Keep count. Tracking your activity on an app or in a diary helps you remember how active you've been—and how you’re working toward your goals 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.”

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