You might be getting a little too cozy on the couch.

By Rozalynn S. Frazier
January 04, 2021
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Did you know one in four adults don't meet the global recommended levels of physical activity? That's unfortunate, considering that a sedentary lifestyle—defined by a Sedentary Behavior Research Network's (SBRN) report as any waking behavior characterized by an energy expenditure less than 1.5 metabolic equivalents, while in a sitting, reclining, or lying posture—is linked to an "increased risk of adverse health outcomes, including weight gain and obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and increased risk of all-cause mortality," says Jessica Matthews, DBH, a national board-certified health and wellness coach and assistant professor of kinesiology and integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University. Put in layman's terms, a sedentary lifestyle is marked by a deficiency of physical activity with long, uninterrupted periods of time or significant portions of the day spent sitting or lying down.

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Simply put: Our bodies were not made to be stationary for long periods. “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 and a Peloton Health & Wellness Advisory Council member. Nowadays, something is still going to get you—but “that something becomes disease and premature aging.” And it doesn’t take long for sedentary tendencies to wreak havoc on your health. In fact, research shows it can take just two weeks of inactivity (in young, healthy people) to cause some pretty significant health effects, including reduced muscle mass and metabolic changes.

How Long Is Too Long to Sit Still? 

The general recommendation is to reduce prolonged sedentary behavior to no more than 60 minutes, Matthews says. To keep up, she suggests focusing on greater frequency of movement throughout the entire day. 

“At the end of every hour aim for three to six minutes of movement,” adds Joe Holder, a Nike Master Trainer and health and wellness consultant. “Set an alarm and just stand up, walk around. Do some sit-to-stands from your chair.” These “exercise snacks,” as Holder calls them, break up prolonged periods of sitting and get your blood flowing. “I can't really speak enough about the need for you to let your body do what it was made to do: not sit,” he says. 

Still not sure if your habits are too sedentary? Here are some major signs you’re not moving enough for lifelong mental and physical health, and that it’s time to boost your physical activity.

Signs You're Not Moving Enough

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One way is to consider 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’re not hitting either of those suggestions, you’re likely not moving enough. 

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Another helpful strategy: “Count the number of hours you sleep, and then subtract that from 24 hours. That number is the number of hours in the day you have to live, to move, to be active, and to be engaged. If you spend more than 50 percent of that time sitting, reclining, and not moving, it’s important to find ways to change this,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, a preventive cardiologist, founder of SRSHeart Center for Women's Prevention, Health and Wellness, and a Peloton Health & Wellness Advisory Council member.  

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It’s true, fatigue comes from many things—stress, a poor diet, hormone imbalances—but being sedentary also plays a role in extreme tiredness. The more you sit around, the more wiped out you’re going to feel. That’s because the body—heart, lungs, muscles—is being "deconditioned", which can happen in as little as a couple of days.

The good news: Research shows that moving can put the spring back in your step. One study that looked at the effect of exercise on folks who reported persistent levels of fatigue found that both those who engaged in 20 minutes of either low- or medium-intensity exercise three times a week for six weeks experienced a 20 percent boost in energy levels. And while both groups also reported a reduction in feelings of fatigue, the low-intensity group experienced a much higher drop. Translation: You don’t have to go hard to reap the benefits.

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To keep your weight from fluctuating in an unhealthy way, you have to burn the same number of calories that you take in. But when you’re too sedentary, your calorie intake stays the same while your energy expenditure plummets, and those excess calories get stored as fat. In the same vein, being sedentary also affects your metabolism—the body’s process for converting food into energy. A slower metabolism means you’re burning fewer calories at rest. “There is less blood flow and less metabolism,” Layton says. “Long term, that leads to diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, and other diseases.”

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“The heart thrives on good oxygen flow,” says Sanul Corrielus, MD, FAAC, a board certified cardiologist and owner of Corrielus Cardiology in Philadelphia. As we sink deeper into the couch, Dr. Corrielus explains, “our breathing gets shallow which depletes the heart of good streams of oxygen supply and contributes to the deconditioning of the heart.” Minimal movement can also make you feel winded faster as well as experience palpitations, which “can lead to further deterioration of the heart function if not addressed effectively.”

The more stagnant a person, the greater risk of mortality and heart disease, Dr. Steinbaum says, pointing to one data analysis from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Norfolk study, which found that each additional hour spent per day watching television during leisure time 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. “Without movement and exercise, we have an increase in the sympathetic nervous system,” she says. “Sympathetic overdrive leads to an increase in stress hormones and inflammatory markers, leading to an increase in cardiovascular disease.”

RELATED: 10 Top Heart-Healthy Foods You'll Love Eating

As you get older, it takes longer to recover from a sedentary state. That said, to recondition the heart, Dr. Correlius says it will take about 8 to 10 weeks of consistent workouts. “Even if it's just walking for 10 minutes every other day, the key is to start and be consistent,” he says, Your goal: Work up to doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week. “Even a light-intensity movement for one to five minutes every hour can make a significant impact,” Dr. Steinbaum of moderate intensity exercise.

Need a little push to get you started? JAMA Cardiology reveals that just one session is enough to offer two to three hours of protection against damage to the heart.

RELATED: 6 Life-Changing Reasons to Take a Hike 

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Sleep is precious. Not getting an adequate amount—the recommended seven to nine hours—can lead to metabolism issues, weaken your immune system, up your risk of an early death, and more. And the longer you’re inactive, the more your sleep will suffer. For example, if you spend more than 11 hours a day in chill mode (we’ve all binged-watched an entire season, let’s be honest) it can lead to both reduced sleep quality and sleep quantity. A meta-analysis also found that excessive sedentary habits ups the possibility of insomnia.

Rest assured, you’ll be able to sleep more soundly if you nail the recommended national activity guidelines. Research reveals those who did were 95 percent less likely to feel overly sleepy throughout the day.

RELATED: If You're Desperate for Deeper Sleep, Taking More Walks Might Help 

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“Studies have also shown that those people who are more sedentary have a decrease in psychological well-being and quality of life,” says Dr. Steinbaum, noting that these people also tend to be more depressed. She also explains that exercise is associated with the release of serotonin. “These ‘feel good’ hormones are what makes the ‘runner's high’ that drives people to crave exercise and be committed to their exercise plans,” she says. 

Becoming aware of your underactive tendencies and choosing to be active can help put your mind and mood in a better position—and mindfulness can play a crucial role. “Mindfulness can strengthen our ability to combat stress and anxiety,” says Matt West, a psychologist and co-founder of the Boom Journal, a mindful journaling app. West strongly believes that the habit of moving mindfully is extremely beneficial to optimizing the relationship between fitness and mental health. Research backs this up. In Psychology of Sport and Exercise, students who were either mindful or moving experienced a bump in mood and a decline in stress. When the habits were combined, the effects were bolstered even more.

RELATED: 5 Daily Routines You Should Probably Do More Mindfully

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Typically when we think of being sedentary, our minds zero in on physical side effects like muscle weakness, heart issues, and overall risk for diseases like cancer. But our brains need exercise just as much as our bodies do. According to a PLOS One study, hours spent sitting leads to less thickness in the medial temporal lobe, an area of the brain responsible for memory— which might explain why you’ve been forgetful if you’ve also been idle. But, a dose of aerobic fitness, like treadmill walking, can not only boost this area, but also help with age-related cognitive issues such as dementia. 

Remember, “even small increases in physical activity offer positive benefits in terms of improved health and well-being,” Matthews says. Start small and stick to it, because when “implemented consistently, over time they lead to big results.” 

Now, let’s get moving, shall we? Here are 8 Ways to Start a Fitness Routine You Can Stick With.