Here's how to reverse the curse of a sedentary lifestyle, according to science.

By Maggie Seaver
December 01, 2020
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There is no shortage of scientific research to tell you that a sedentary lifestyle—one that involves little to no physical activity—is detrimental to everything from our mental wellbeing to physical health to overall longevity. In fact, besides endowing you with all kinds of immediate aches and pains, sedentary behaviors and physical inactivity are some of the leading factors around the world for cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. Even for people who are relatively active, prolonged periods spent sitting—whether from desk-bound work days or lazy weekends in front of the TV—can chip away at the benefits of their healthy choices.

But before you panic and start working your nine-to-five from the treadmill in the attic, there’s good news. It is possible to help counterbalance some of the health risks associated with sitting for hours (and hours) with a regular and attainable amount of movement. A massive meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Medicine seems to have found the daily exercise sweet spot required to offset the negative impact of 10 hours of sitting.

According to the published research, 30 to 40 minutes of mild to vigorous physical activity every day appears to reduce the association between sedentary time and risk of death.

Scientists cross-analyzed nine prospective cohort studies from four different countries, which followed 44,370 men and women followed for four to 14 and a half years. They examined how different combinations of physical activity (measured by fitness trackers) and sedentary time affected their respective health and mortality risk. Overall, researchers found that “higher sedentary time is associated with higher mortality in less active individuals,” and “those in the lowest third of [mild-to-vigorous physical activity] had a greater risk of death in all combinations with sedentary time.” 

The fitness recommendation above also aligns nicely with recent research suggesting that 35 minutes of exercise per day—either from higher-intensity cardio or lower-impact movement (yoga, stretching)—is the magic number to help stave off depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The findings also coincide well with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) newly released 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior, which recommends 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (that's about 21 to 43 minutes per day) or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week for able-bodied adults.

How you choose to move your body to reverse the health risks associated with sitting too much is up to you. Find activities you love that raise your heart rate and work up a good sweat, whether it's a formal fitness session or vigorous afternoon of gardening or playing with the kids. Take a brisk walk around the neighborhood, go for a bike ride, run up and down the stairs in your apartment building, blast music and have a dance party in your bedroom, take a good old-fashioned hike. These are all fair game. On days when you can't squeeze in any sort of workout, at least make sure to stand up every 20 to 30 minutes to stretch your legs. If you can, take a lap around the kitchen island or do some super-quick squats between batches of emails. Or try these easy yoga stretches you can fit between Zoom calls.