The data is in, Americans move less than ever before, and this is extremely bad for our health. Our human ancestors used to travel up to 10 miles a day when we were hunter-gatherers according to David Ponser, a researcher in evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. Now the average American is lucky to walk to their car, to their office, and back to their car again. Americans now spend about 9-10 hours a day being sedentary, most of this time is spent sitting.1
The problem is that humans were designed to move, and when we don’t, bad things happen. According to the Mayo Clinic, an overwhelming amount of research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns. They include obesity, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.2 Prolonged sitting has even been linked to an increased risk of various cancer types in multiple studies!3
You are probably thinking, well I exercise for 30 minutes a day, so I’m fine. Not so fast. It turns out a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that while exercise is incredibly beneficial for people, it can’t undo 10 hours of sitting or being sedentary. “The amount of time a person sits during the day is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and death, regardless of regular exercise” 4. What this means is that exercise alone can’t undo a predominantly sedentary lifestyle.
“Avoiding sedentary time and getting regular exercise are both important for improving your health and survival,” said Dr. David Alter, Senior Scientist, Toronto Rehab, University Health Network (UHN), and Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. “It is not good enough to exercise for 30 minutes a day and be sedentary for 23 and half hours.” 5
The good news is it seems that even a little bit of movement can offset the damaging effects of sedentary behavior. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who fidget (small repetitive movements over time) offset their sedentary time and had a lower risk of all-cause mortality.6 So just that small bit of movement tapping your foot, can increase movement enough to improve your overall health and offset the damaging effects of prolonged sitting. Adding more low-intensity movement to your day is the best way to combat our typical sedentary lifestyle.
So what can you do if you are a typical sedentary person and want to avoid the risks? Move more! It’s as simple as that. Yes exercise regularly, but as we have seen, the small movements throughout the day count just as much.
- Go for walks regularly. Get up and walk around every 30 minutes to an hour
- Add in extra movement during the day instead of taking the easy way. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Walk to the farthest place for lunch instead of the usual closest (within reason). Do some pushups or lunges in your office when you have a minute.
- Change your seating option. Of course, getting up every 30 minutes can really mess with productivity. Consider getting an active chair (like the Ariel) that lets you move while you sit, this increases metabolism and keeps you moving all day, but you can still get work done.
- Don’t undersell chores. Things like washing dishes, cooking, and vacuuming, aren’t exactly high-intensity training, but they get you moving enough to definitely be beneficial and add to your movement time. So go out of your way to kill two birds with one stone, get some chores done and get some movement in.
- Set a step goal. Use a fitness tracker to try and get more steps than you typically would in a day. 10,000 is the typical suggestion, but if you usually get 2,000, then setting a goal of 5,000 steps is a huge improvement.
In summary: we sit more than ever in our modern lives, and it’s killing us. We evolved to move a lot more than we do now, and that should be our goal. Although exercise is great, it can’t offset all our sedentary time. Our goal should be to exercise regularly AND add more movement to our day moment to moment.