Are you Sedentary?

  •   December 5, 2018
  •  Nancy Littke, PT

We've all spent a day on the couch at some point or another. And we've all parked ourselves in front of the TV after work without a second thought. But when does all that time on the couch become a problem? Add that to the time you spend sitting at work or commuting and you may find that you've become sedentary, a lifestyle that may come with a variety of health risks.

What is a “sedentary lifestyle”?

“A sedentary lifestyle is a type of lifestyle with little or no physical activity. A person living a sedentary lifestyle is often sitting or lying down while engaged in an activity like reading, socializing, watching television, playing video games, or using a mobile phone/computer for much of the day.”1

The percentage of people living a sedentary lifestyle has increased as our jobs become more desk-based, we use vehicles to get around instead of walking and we spend more of our recreation time on social media, playing video games, or watching TV.

In fact, according to the 2017 Alberta survey on physical activity,2 only 57% of Albertans are active enough to achieve any health benefits. This activity level has remained virtually unchanged over the last decade despite many ongoing promotional activities encouraging Albertans to become more active. The survey also identified that 1/3 of Albertans live a sedentary lifestyle, meaning they are sitting or lying down at least 10 hours per day, not including time spent sleeping.2 In general, Albertans average nine hours per weekday and 8.5 hours per weekend day of sedentary behavior.

What are the health risks linked to a sedentary lifestyle?

A sedentary lifestyle can be one of the causes of many chronic conditions. The more inactive you are, the greater risk you face of developing these conditions and/or premature death.3 Research suggests that a total sitting time of more than 8-10 hours a day and three to four hours of TV viewing increases the risk for several of these conditions.4

Chronic conditions associated with a sedentary lifestyle include:3

  • Obesity
  • Heart diseases such as coronary artery disease and heart attacks
  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Certain cancers such as colon, breast or uterine cancer
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
  • Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety

A sedentary lifestyle can also affect the way your body works and looks. You may gain weight. Your muscles may lose the strength and endurance required to perform everyday tasks such as climbing stairs, walking or simply getting up from a chair. Weakness can lead to an increased risk of falls. Falls may be more serious as your bones become thinner with less activity and may break more easily.3

How can I combat the risks and avoid living a sedentary lifestyle?

Make a plan to start moving more and sitting less. If you have been inactive for a long time, you may need to start slowly. Increasing your activity by even a small amount leads to a decrease in the time spent sitting and is better than not starting at all. It is important to take small steps and avoid becoming overwhelmed by trying to take on too much too fast. Simply adding a daily walk is a good start.

Find a friend or family member to join you and support your desire to become more active. It has been shown that having an exercise buddy, support from the rest of your family or colleagues, and getting involved in little competitions can increase your motivation to be more active and may help you achieve your goals.5 Maintaining your increased activity level is also easier if you have a buddy encouraging you.

Eventually, you may set a personal goal of meeting the Canadian physical activity guidelines. These guidelines recommend that adults age 18 – 64 participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week, in bouts of at least 10 minutes or more.6 A moderate activity is one that makes you sweat a little and breathe a little harder. Examples would be taking a brisk walk or riding your bike. A vigorous activity will make you feel ‘out of breath’ and sweat a lot. Examples of vigorous activities are jogging, cross-country skiing, riding your bike up hills or participating in an intense group exercise class.

These guidelines are appropriate for most adults, but if you have any concerns about starting to increase your activity level, you should consult a health professional before starting.

For more specific information on the physical activity guidelines for infants, children, pregnant women, adults with MS or older adults (65+) go to the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) website at http://csepguidelines.ca/.

I work at a desk all day – what can I do?

Today up to 80% of us work at desk jobs, often in front of a computer.3 Here are some simple ways to add some movement into your work day:

  • Set an alarm and get up and move around the office once an hour.
  • Take the opportunity to stand when talking to colleagues or on the phone.
  • Ask your boss for a stand-up desk and use it to change position several times a day.
  • Park a little further away or get off at an earlier bus stop. A 10-minute brisk walk twice a day adds up to 100 active minutes in a regular work week.
  • Take the stairs rather than the elevator.
  • Go for short walks at lunch or on your break.
  • Stand up and walk to a colleague’s office or desk rather than sending an email or calling them on the phone.
  • Organize standing or walking staff meetings.

What about the days I spend at home?

There are several ways to become more active at home that do not involve expensive equipment or hours of exercising.

  • When you are involved in some of the more physical jobs like housework, gardening and yard work, try doing them at a more vigorous pace.
  • Offer to mow your neighbors’ lawns or shovel their sidewalks.
  • While watching your favorite TV shows, try lifting some hand weights, riding a stationary exercise bike, or taking the time to do a few stretches.
  • Plan to go for a walk around the neighborhood with your spouse, children, dog or a good friend.
  • Find opportunities to stand more when you are on the phone, sending emails or checking social media.

What about activity trackers? Do they help?

The popularity of activity trackers has increased over the last few years and you have many options to choose from.

There appears to be good evidence that using an activity tracker increases individual activity levels in the short term.5 It is easy to get behind using this technology and watching our activity levels for a few weeks. However, because the technology is new, there is little evidence to support how well these devices are used over the long term.

When surveyed in 2017, 38% of Albertans indicated that they own an activity tracker, but only 21% of Albertans identified using their tracker on a regular basis.2 The survey also noted that, of the Albertans meeting their recommended activity goals, 59% do so without using an activity tracker.2

So, should I buy an activity tracker? The answer lies with you. You do not need any form of technology or fancy equipment to achieve an active lifestyle that meets or exceeds the recommended activity goals. However, if you like technology and will use the tracker regularly and consistently– it can be a very useful tool and may be worth purchasing. If the tracker simply gets put in a drawer after the novelty wears off then it will not be very useful to you at all and could be a waste of money.

Summary

The decision to be more active is one that’s within reach for everyone. Increasing activity can be as simple as choosing to get up and move around your house or office more frequently or parking a bit further away from your destination when you go out. Choosing to increase your activity level helps to combat many health risks. Getting support from friends, family, or colleagues will help everyone get started and reap the benefits of a less-sedentary lifestyle.

If you have concerns about your ability to start an exercise program, what activities would be best suited to your goals/lifestyle/preferences and want advice on how to get started, talk to a health professional. Physiotherapists are well positioned to assist with answering your questions, assessing your current fitness level and giving advice on appropriate exercises, groups or fitness classes that meet your needs.

Click here to find a physiotherapist who can help guide you on the road to being more active. Is pain keeping you from being active? A physiotherapist can help with that too.


  1. Wikipedia contributors. Sedentary lifestyle [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2018 Aug 12, 10:04 UTC [cited 2018 Oct 3]. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sedentary_lifestyle&oldid=854576497 Accessed Oct 4, 2018.
  2. Alberta Centre for Active Living (2017). 2017 Alberta Survey on Physical Activity. Available at https://www.centre4activeliving.ca/media/filer_public/3b/06/3b06589c-7e88-4565-9435-0bf80892a5e7/2017-ab-survey-executive-summary.pdf Accessed Oct 10, 2018.
  3. Medline Plus. Health Risks of an Inactive Lifestyle. Available at https://medlineplus.gov/healthrisksofaninactivelifestyle.html Accessed Oct 11, 2018.
  4. Patterson, R., McNamara, E., Tainio, M., de Sá, T. H., Smith, A. D., Sharp, S. J., et al. (2018). Sedentary behaviour and risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality, and incident type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose response meta-analysis. European journal of epidemiology, 33(9), 811-829. doi: 10.1007/s10654-018-0380-1
  5. Sullivan AN, Lachman ME. (2016) Behavior Change with Fitness Technology in Sedentary Adults: A Review of the Evidence for Increasing Physical Activity. Frontiers in Public Health. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5225122/ Accessed Oct 15, 2018.
  6. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. Canadian Activity Guidelines for adults. Available at http://www.csep.ca/CMFiles/Guidelines/CSEP_PAGuidelines_adults_en.pdf Accessed Oct 10, 2018.