Be honest: after 2020, does your couch have a groove in it from where you’ve been sitting and binge watching? Or does it seem like you’ve been spending more time in front of a computer screen in the last few months than you have in your entire life combined? You’re not alone, and it’s not just the effects of the pandemic and related lockdowns. A recent study from before the pandemic found that more than half of the average person’s time is spent sitting: watching tv, working at a desk, commuting, or doing other things that don’t require standing or even moving much. Even if you think you’re getting enough movement in your day, you could be wrong – and it could end up affecting your health. So how much sitting is too much, how do you know if your lifestyle is too sedentary, and what can you do about it?
Glued to Our Seats
It’s no wonder we’re all moving less and less these days. According to the American Heart Association, the amount of sedentary jobs in this country have increased by 83% since 1950. Add to that a greater tendency to drive everywhere and a seemingly endless stream of entertainment that keeps us parked on the couch, and it’s a recipe for disaster, in terms of our health.
After all, humans weren’t meant to be sedentary creatures. “Historically, if a person was sitting or lying down for hours when not asleep, they would have starved or gotten eaten by something,” says Aimee Layton, PhD, an exercise physiologist from Columbia University. “Nowadays, something is still going to get you – but that something becomes disease and premature aging.” In fact, recent studies have found that sitting for long periods was associated with worse health outcomes including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. Sedentary behavior can also increase your risk of dying, either from heart disease or other medical problems.
Scary stuff. But you might be thinking, “I follow the WHO’s guidelines and exercise for at least 150 minutes a week, so I’m ok.” Unfortunately, the studies above found the same to be true even when the researchers adjusted for the other physical activities in the participants’ lives. For example, a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that, compared with people who spent less time sitting, people who sat for long periods of time had higher rates of heart disease and were more likely to die from any cause, even if they exercised regularly. It turns out that it doesn’t only matter that you exercise for 30 minutes or an hour a day, it matters what you do with the other 23 hours.
Signs You Need to Get Moving
It’s clear that most of us need to add a little bit more get up and go into our days. But how do you know if your lifestyle is too sedentary? First, take an honest look at your exercise habits: are you falling short of the World Health Organization’s new guidelines, which advise either 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week, plus two days of strength training? If you are, and you aren’t doing a particularly active job, then you’re probably not moving enough. You should also take a very close look at how you spend your waking hours: if you’re spending more than 50% of those hours sitting, reclining or just not moving, then you need to make a change.
If you’re not moving enough, you might also notice the following signs that you’re too sedentary:
- You’re tired all the time – It might sound counterintuitive, but the more you sit around, the more fatigued you’re going to feel. That’s because your body starts to become “deconditioned,” meaning your heart, lungs and muscles are getting out of shape. And this happens more quickly than you might think: it can happen in as little as a few days, and, after 2 weeks of inactivity, even a young, healthy person will begin to have noticeable effects on their health. The goods news is, though, adding in just around an hour of low-to-moderate intensity exercise per week can give you a 20% boost in your energy levels!
- You often feel winded – Do you dread a jog up the stairs to grab something from another room? Blame all the extra time spent binge watching on the couch. According to Sanul Corrielus, MD, FAAC, a board certified cardiologist, “The heart thrives on good oxygen flow,” and when we’re inactive, “our breathing gets shallow which depletes the heart of good streams of oxygen supply and contributes to the deconditioning of the heart.”
While you may be worried about the physical discomfort of getting winded all the time, it’s that deconditioning that you should be more worried about. According to an analysis of data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Norfolk, each additional hour spent watching television per day came with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, sitting at least 10 hours a day, compared to sitting for less than five, was associated with a higher risk of heart attacks.
But don’t despair, there is absolutely something you can do to help recondition your heart (and stop that annoying huffing and puffing). According to Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, a preventive cardiologist, “Even a light-intensity movement for one to five minutes every hour can make a significant impact.” And, once you work up to consistently exercising for longer periods every day, your heart should be in much better shape in 8 – 10 weeks.
- Your sleep is suffering – It’s been found that sitting for 10 -11 hours a day can lead to reduced sleep quality and quantity; other studies have found that an excessively sedentary lifestyle could cause insomnia. Getting in some solid zzz’s is extremely important for your health – lack of sleep can affect everything from your immune system to your metabolism – so work towards getting your recommended amount of exercise to get you ready to hit the hay every night!
- You’re feeling blue – Not feeling yourself? Feeling down? According to Dr. Steinbaum, “Studies have also shown that those people who are more sedentary have a decrease in psychological well-being and quality of life,” and they tend to be more depressed. If you’re missing out on your daily exercise, you’re also missing out on the boost of serotonin, the feel-good hormone, that gets released when you do physical activity. That “runner’s high” is one thing that you should actually aim to get hooked on! It’ll help you stay committed to your exercise plan – and before you know it, exercise will be an essential part of your day.
- Your memory isn’t what it used to be – It’s not just your body that suffers when you don’t move enough; your brain also takes a hit. Namely, the medial temporal lobe, or the part of the brain responsible for memory function. One study has found that sitting too much actually decreases the thickness of this part of the brain, meaning you might find yourself misplacing your keys more often if you’re not getting enough exercise. But the solution is simple. You guessed it: a daily dose of aerobic activity has been proven to boost memory, and even help stave off cognitive decline as you age.
Get Up and Go!
It all seems pretty black and white. Sitting for 10 hours a day? Not good. The solution, and the way to quickly and easily improve your physical and mental health? Get moving! And that doesn’t have to mean spending more time at the gym or doing dedicated fitness activities. Start small and simple. Try the following:
- Time yourself! – According to most experts, you should aim to reduce your prolonged sedentary behavior to no more than 60 minutes at a time, so get up and move at the end of every hour. Or, for every 20 minutes you spend sitting, while working for example, stand for 8 minutes and do 2 minutes of physical activity. Set a timer to keep yourself honest.
- Get restless – On the phone? Pace around the house, or take a stroll and do a walk and talk!
- Turn commercial breaks in workout breaks – “Fitness snacking” (or fitting in a few minutes of exercise multiple times a day) is a much better idea than actual snacking while you’re watching TV. When those annoying ads come on, ignore them and get in a mini-workout: squat, do yoga poses, jog in place – whatever floats your boat, just get moving.
- Take the long way home – Even if you can’t replace the drive to most places with a walk, you can at least park further away from your destination and get in a few extra steps.
There are so many other creative ways you can fit in a little extra movement in your day – yoga between Zoom meetings, trying out a standing desk, running up and down the stairs a few extra times on laundry day, or having a dance party with your kids! Every moment you’re moving your body and are not sinking into the couch is a win for your health, so let’s all take a moment (or two) to stand up and give our heart some love. How do you fit more movement into your day, especially now that many of us are stuck at home?