It looks like we should be paying attention to those “Are you still watching?” pop-ups on our favorite TV programs, after all. These reminders signal to us that it’s time to get up and stretch our legs. With the constant access to entertainment, shopping, and work via computers and televisions, a sedentary lifestyle is easier and more comfortable than ever before.
That lifestyle may be slowly leading our minds and bodies into a negative health spiral, though. There are countless diseases and conditions associated with leading a sedentary lifestyle. It’s almost as if sitting for long periods of time might be the new smoking. Here, health and wellness experts explain the many disadvantages that stem from a lack of regular physical activity and too much sitting.
1. Weight Gain
Physical therapy specialist Kellen Scantlebury, D.P.T., says, “Obesity is an epidemic in this country mainly because people aren’t moving like they used to. Sitting for long periods of time prevents us from burning calories, and when we eat more calories than we burn, we gain weight.”
Overall, he explains, living a sedentary life leads to less motion in your day. “That limited activity really can pack on the pounds. Moderate-level exercise three to five times a week is known to help people manage their weight. If you want to target fat loss, you want to be working at 50 to 70 percent of your heart rate max.”
Believe it or not, the first astronauts who went into space came back with osteoporosis. Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., author of Future Health Now Encyclopedia, claims it was due to lack of gravity. “The bones need to have the muscles pull on them to keep them healthy and keep bones turning over.” While she admits it’s an extreme case, it serves as a reminder of what can happen to your body when you’re placed in a sedentary environment and lifestyle.
Scantlebury adds, “Osteoporosis is classified as having low bone density. A person with osteoporosis is more apt to have a bone fracture because it is weaker than the bones of a person of the same age without osteoporosis.” Although it seems counterintuitive, the truth is that the more stress we put on our bones, the stronger they become. “When someone is sedentary and not spending a lot of time standing, their pelvis and lower-leg bones become prone to osteoporosis. Activities such as standing and weight training are great at reducing your risk for osteoporosis,” Scantlebury says.
3. Cardiovascular Diseases
“Sitting in a chair is unnatural,” says cardiologist Robert Greenfield, M.D. In fact, even the modern-day toilet (when looking at the history of human evolution) is an unnatural way to go to the restroom. Dr. Greenfield stresses that prolonged exposure to sitting and living a sedentary lifestyle can cause “blood flow in the lower extremities to slow and stagnate. This can induce the formation of blood clots that can travel up to the heart and lung regions.”
Just as plane travelers are encouraged to get up and walk throughout the cabin during a flight, people sitting in their office chairs or watching TV all day are advised to do the same. Heart health is very important, so along with feeding your body heart-healthy foods, you must incorporate movement and exercise as well.
4. Type 2 Diabetes
“Consistent exercise on a regular basis raises healthy HDL cholesterol levels and reduces unhealthy LDL cholesterol and triglycerides,” Dean says. “It also lowers blood sugar and boosts sensitivity to insulin, which can prevent and/or manage diabetes. One study found that only two and a half hours of brisk walking a week cut the risk of diabetes by 30 percent.” She adds that aerobic and resistance programs improve insulin sensitivity more than aerobic training alone.
5. Chronic Pain
“The biggest health risk for people who lead a sedentary lifestyle is developing chronic back and neck pain. When we sit for long periods of time, our muscles get stiff and weak. This causes poor posture, which leads to back and neck pain. In addition, our spines get compressed from sitting, and this can eventually lead to serious issues like bulging and herniated discs, which are painful conditions,” says Leon Turetsky, a NASM certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist.
Additionally, conditions such as muscle atrophy can form when a muscle begins to waste away. A common sign that your body is undergoing muscle atrophy is if one of the body’s limbs appears smaller than the other.
6. Venous Stasis
“Venous stasis is a condition where the poor venous blood flow causes the skin to become hyperpigmented and change in texture,” says board-certified podiatrist Sophia Solomon, D.P.M. “This condition weakens the skin, putting you at risk for ulceration and infections. The calf works as a pump to push blood back to the heart and into circulation. When we are sedentary, blood stays stagnant in our legs. Blood products such as hemosiderin leak out into our tissues, causing hyperpigmentation and breakdown of the skin. Venous stasis is a risk factor of deep vein thrombosis, which can lead to a pulmonary embolism or even death.”
7. Loss of Balance
“In my view, the biggest risk of sedentariness is the loss of balance,” says Catherine Tingey, a yoga and meditation coach. “We often hear about increased risks of obesity and [high] cholesterol with a sedentary lifestyle but overlook the mechanical implications on the body. Our bodies are built to move.”
She explains that our balance suffers because the simple act of walking requires the body to momentarily balance on one leg. Give up walking, and your lower extremity musculature, along with your spine, will atrophy. “You won’t be able to hold your body up against the force of gravity. Your risk of falling increases exponentially, as balance is everything!” A fall due to poor balance can lead to injuries such as broken bones and muscle tears.
A sedentary lifestyle can affect the mind as well. Psychotherapist Kevon Owen says, “The body likes to move. It likes it so much that it responds to activity by producing dopamine, the brain’s chemical that signals enjoyment. On the other side of that, depression is fed through sedentary action and lack of daylight. As being sedentary continues, individuals can lose the ability to be as active or mobile, which produces more depression. Which comes first, being sedentary or depression? That’s tricky because it can go both ways. But you have to know being sedentary and having clinical depression certainly can be found together often.”
In order to avoid the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle, try to implement more exercise into your daily routine. Remember that everyone starts somewhere, and it’s OK to start slow. The important thing is that you’re moving and getting your blood flowing. If you’re worried about prolonged exposure to sitting at work, bring your wellness routine to the office in the form of a standing desk or a stability ball as your chair.