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Short- and Long-Term Health Effects of a Sedentary Lifestyle

Your body was made to move! Today’s lifestyle makes it hard to keep your body moving throughout the day. Many people sit all day at work and then go home to use technology or watch television. But a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to health problems such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and premature mortality.

According to a study published in JAMA:1

  • About 1 in 4 adults sit for over 8 hours daily.
  • About 4 in 10 adults are physically inactive.
  • About 1 in 10 adults sits for over 8 hours daily and is physically inactive the rest of the day.

According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25% of adults are physically inactive. Exercising or engaging in physical activity for a few hours and then sitting meets the criteria for exercise. However, according to researchers, it is still not healthy. Prolonged periods of sitting are associated with an increase in all-cause mortality. Sitting for less than 30 minutes at a time decreases your risk of an early death.2

What Is a Sedentary Lifestyle?

Several organizations have defined a sedentary lifestyle or sedentary behavior. According to the Sedentary Behavior Research Network, some of these definitions include:3

  • A class of behaviors characterized by low energy expenditure.
  • Sedentary behaviors such as TV watching, computer use, or sitting typically fall in the energy-expenditure range of 1.0 to 1.5 METs (multiples of the basal metabolic rate).
  • Behaviors that do not increase energy expenditure substantially.
  • Non-upright behaviors.
  • Any time spent sitting or lying.

Putting these together: A sedentary lifestyle is defined by an increased amount of sitting, lying, or reclining that has very low energy expenditure, which is typically defined as 1.0 to 1.5 METs.

Characteristics of a Sedentary Lifestyle

Your day can be divided into three parts:

  • Sleep: During the 6 to 10 hours you sleep each night, you are either sitting, reclining, or lying down. This portion of your day is appropriately sedentary.
  • Physical Activity: During this part of your day, you are in motion and can be engaged in light, moderate, or vigorous physical activity. Increasing your time moving will improve your overall health and reduce your risk for chronic disease. Light exercise is better than sedentary behavior, moderate activity is better than light, and vigorous activity can be even better depending on your fitness level.
  • Sedentary Behavior: Any time spent lying, reclining, or sitting throughout your day.
A doctor explaining heart disease to a patient

Why Do Sedentary Lifestyles Negatively Affect Health?

When your body doesn’t move, you:

  • Burn fewer calories and can more easily gain weight.
  • Increase your risk for blood clots in your legs.
  • May lose bone density and mass more quickly.
  • Lose muscle mass and endurance.
  • Lose cardiovascular fitness.
  • May experience anxiety and depression.
  • May find it harder to get quality sleep.
  • Have increased fatigue.

In one study over 12 years that enrolled 17,000 Canadian adults, it was found that adults who spent most of their time sitting were 50% more likely to die than those who sat the least. The researchers controlled for age, smoking, and physical activity levels.4

Possible Short-Term Health Effects

Lack of exercise and physical movement throughout the day increases your risk for:

  • Weight gain
  • Poor exercise endurance
  • Low mood
  • Constipation
  • Decreased energy
  • Back pain

These short-term effects of sedentary behavior can be reversed by incorporating physical activity into your day.

Possible Long-Term Health Effects

When a sedentary lifestyle becomes a habit, you increase your risk for:5,6

  • Obesity: Your body burns calories daily as you fidget and move around. However, most obesity risk comes from diet. Research is inconclusive on how much a sedentary lifestyle affects your weight.7
  • Mortality: Seven systematic reviews indicate that sedentary behavior is associated with increased all-cause and cardiovascular mortality, independent of physical activity and body mass index.
  • Heart disease: In one study, researchers found that sitting just two hours a day was associated with a 5% increase in cardiovascular disease.5 Having obesity is another risk factor for heart disease. Physical activity can help you manage your weight and improve your cardiovascular health. Learn more facts and common myths about heart disease.
  • High blood pressure: Sedentary behaviors may increase your risk of hypertension.6 Physical activity improves cardiovascular health and lowers blood pressure. High blood pressure does not have symptoms. Learn how to protect your cardiovascular health in this hypertension guide.
  • Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis is decreased bone density and mass. Adolescents and young adults build their lifetime supply of bone. Pounding exercises like walking and running increase bone density as bone responds to stress.
  • Falls: When the stabilizing muscles in your core become weak from sitting too much, it increases your risk of falls.
  • Blood clots: If you have a genetic predisposition for blood clots, sitting for long periods can increase your risk.
  • High cholesterol: Sedentary behavior increases LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides. Physical activity increases HDL or good cholesterol. Read more about the differences between good and bad cholesterol.
  • Certain cancers: Sedentary behavior may increase your risk for colorectal, breast, endometrial, ovarian, and prostate cancers.6 However, the results are inconclusive and may be influenced by time spent in physical activity and body mass index.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Research suggests that sitting for 2 hours per day is associated with a 20% increase in risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Depression and anxiety: Some studies show an association between sedentary behavior and depressed mood.8,9 However, more evidence supports how physical activity boosts mood and reduces stress. Stress can also have a significant effect on heart health.

While many studies on the health effects are inconclusive, the studies that demonstrate the benefits of physical activity for overall health are not. It is challenging to design studies that measure the health effects of sedentary behavior and exclude possible confounding variables. However, there is a growing body of evidence that sedentary behavior is a risk factor for multiple adverse health outcomes in adults, regardless of whether they exercise.10

A person using an exercise tracker.

How To Change Your Sedentary Lifestyle

Research suggests that even people who meet the recommended physical activity guidelines are still at risk if they sit for the rest of the day. It will take a conscious effort to develop new habits that involve moving your body regularly throughout the day.

At Home

Try to incorporate some of these heart-healthy exercises and physical activity into your daily schedule:

  • Pace while you talk on the phone.
  • Save TV watching for when you are using a treadmill or other exercise equipment or if you sit, get up, and walk during each commercial.
  • Set a timer when you sit down.
  • Listen to recorded books so you can walk while you listen.
  • Space out your chores so they include more walking.
  • Play with your pets.

At Work

Increase your physical activity at work by trying to incorporate some of the following behaviors into your day:

  • Park further from the building.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Set reminders on your phone or watch to get up and move every 30 minutes.
  • Go for a walk on your breaks.
  • Use restrooms on a different floor.
  • Pace in your office when you are on the phone.
  • Invest in a standing desk or a walking pad.
  • Organize walking meetings.
  • Stand while riding the bus.
  • Walk to work.
  • Make it a habit to get up and do quick exercises periodically throughout the day.

When To Seek Help From Health Professionals

If you are concerned about your risk for chronic disease, cannot exercise, or are excessively fatigued, make an appointment with a Telegra MD doctor to discuss your symptoms and health history. TelegraMD doctors are available 24 hours a day, so you can get help when you need it. They can provide an online diagnosis and develop an individualized treatment plan. However, if you have shortness of breath, chest pain, or any other signs of a medical emergency, see a local doctor for urgent care.

Disclaimer

While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.

References

1. Ussery EN, Fulton JE, Galuska DA, Katzmarzyk PT, Carlson SA. Joint Prevalence of Sitting Time and Leisure-Time Physical Activity Among US Adults, 2015-2016. JAMA. 2018;320(19):2036–2038. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.17797

2. Diaz KM, Howard VJ, Hutto B, et al. Patterns of Sedentary Behavior and Mortality in U.S. Middle-Aged and Older Adults: A National Cohort Study. Ann Intern Med.2017;167:465-475. [Epub 12 September 2017]. doi:10.7326/M17-0212

3. Tremblay, M.S., Aubert, S., Barnes, J.D. et al. Sedentary Behavior Research Network (SBRN) – Terminology Consensus Project process and outcome. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 14, 75 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0525-8

4. Katzmarzyk PT, Church TS, Craig CL, Bouchard C. Sitting time and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 May;41(5):998-1005. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181930355. PMID: 19346988.

5. de Rezende LF, Rodrigues Lopes M, Rey-López JP, Matsudo VK, Luiz Odo C. Sedentary behavior and health outcomes: an overview of systematic reviews. PLoS One. 2014 Aug 21;9(8):e105620. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0105620. PMID: 25144686; PMCID: PMC4140795.

6. Park JH, Moon JH, Kim HJ, Kong MH, Oh YH. Sedentary Lifestyle: Overview of Updated Evidence of Potential Health Risks. Korean J Fam Med. 2020 Nov;41(6):365-373. doi: 10.4082/kjfm.20.0165. Epub 2020 Nov 19. PMID: 33242381; PMCID: PMC7700832.

7. McGuire, K. A., & Ross, R. (2011). Sedentary behavior is not associated with cardiometabolic risk in adults with abdominal obesity. PloS One, 6(6), e20503. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020503

8. Sanchez-Villegas, A., Ara, I., Guillén-Grima, F., Bes-Rastrollo, M., Varo-Cenarruzabeitia, J. J., & Martínez-González, M. A. (2008). Physical activity, sedentary index, and mental disorders in the SUN cohort study. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 40(5), 827–834. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e31816348b9

9. Zhai L, Zhang Y, Zhang D. Sedentary behaviour and the risk of depression: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2015;49:705-709.

10. Thorp, A. A., Owen, N., Neuhaus, M., & Dunstan, D. W. (2011). Sedentary behaviors and subsequent health outcomes in adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine41(2), 207–215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2011.05.004