A sedentary lifestyle is widely discussed for its health risks in most medical quarters. The public is well aware that physical inactivity can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease and strokes. It can reduce the quality of life and is more frequently associated with fatal outcomes. However, there is still some confusion among the public as to what constitutes a sedentary lifestyle. Is it simply a lack of defined exercise periods? Is it just about sitting for too many hours in a day?
Definition of a Sedentary Lifestyle
In a broad sense, a sedentary lifestyle is where a person does not exercise on a regular basis and is minimally active during the course of a regular day. It is sometimes referred to as sitting disease because a person is limited to minimal physical activity as is the case when sitting. This type of lifestyle has become common these days as technology often limits physical activity and related tasks need to be conducted in the sitting position. It correlates with the increase in obesity and associated diseases that are seen in more developed nations.
There is no strict definition of a sedentary lifestyle. It includes a lifestyle with less than 120 minutes of exercise in a week (4 sessions of 30 minutes each). It also includes a lifestyle where the majority of waking hours is spent off the feet, either sitting or lying down. Some studies have suggested that for every hour that a person spends sitting and conducting activities requiring minimal physical abilities (like watching TV) can increase the risk of heart disease by as much as 18%.
Health Risks of a Sedentary Lifestyle
The health risks of sedentary lifestyle is well known but new associations with various diseases are being discovered on a frequent basis. Diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are probably the most widely publicized consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. However, this type of lifestyle can increase the risk of many other types of diseases.
Type 2 Diabetes
A sedentary lifestyle is one of the major risk factors of type 2 diabetes. The link may be the associated obesity with being less active. Obesity affects glucose tolerance. However, there may be other associations. Type 2 diabetes is a condition where the body becomes resistant to insulin, the hormone secreted by the pancreas that reduces blood glucose levels.
Coronary Artery Disease
The coronary arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Reduced physical activity is associated with atherosclerosis where fatty plaques form in the artery walls. This can cause narrowing of the coronary arteries. Eventually there may be a blockage of the affected artery leading to death of a portion of the heart wall. This is known as a heart attack or myocardial infarction.
A stroke arises when a portion of the brain tissue dies as a result of inadequate blood supply. This can arise for the same reason as coronary artery disease. The reduced physical activity contributes towards atherosclerosis. These fatty plaques may build up in the arteries supplying blood to the brain. Eventually the narrowed artery may become blocked and a stroke occurs.
A sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for certain cancers. It is not always clear why this may occur. Other lifestyle habits like cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol consumption may be more likely with a sedentary lifestyle. Obesity is another factor. Furthermore it is known that a sedentary lifestyle reduces the effectiveness of the immune system, an important component in cancer regulation.
These diseases are the main causes of death in developed nations. However, the lack of physical activity contributes to a number of other health conditions. These other conditions may not always be as common or as serious but are nevertheless significant. Even when a sedentary lifestyle does not increase the risk of a disease, exercise is known to have benefits for many other conditions.
How to be less sedentary?
It is important to note that a sedentary lifestyle is a modifiable risk factor. This means that it can be changed unlike some of the other risk factor such as genetics. However, it requires a concerted effort as physical activity needs to be ongoing for the maximum health benefit.
Walk As Often As Possible
Even if you have a desk job, you should take the opportunity to walk as often as possible. Simply standing upright uses many more muscles than sitting down even if you do not take a single step. A simple measure like taking the stairs rather than using the elevator can play a major role in increasing physical activity during the course of a working day.
Stretching Exercises Every Hour
If your job does not allow you to walk around much, you can still do simple stretching exercises on the spot right by your desk. This is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Stand up, stretch, bend and turn. It is not as effective as walking or jogging for 10 minutes but NEAT is better than no exercise at all. Just 10 minutes every hour is sufficient.
Your one hour lunch break can be a good opportunity to get the exercise that you would not normally do during the course of an average work day. It does not even have to involve a gym workout. Take a 30 minute walk rather than sitting down after lunch and waiting till its time to get back to your desk.
Before and After Work Exercise
If you cannot get to a gym or exercise after work, then consider waking up just 30 minutes earlier in the morning. Take the opportunity to do a simple workout at home before you jump into the shower. You do not need expensive gym equipment like a treadmill. Simply jogging on the spot, doing some ab crunches and push ups for 30 minutes is better than not doing any exercise at all.
Choose More Active Past Times
Television, computers and mobile devices keep us sitting even when we are not at work. Commit to switching off all electronic devices and choose more physically demanding past times. It can be as simple as gardening, washing your car or cleaning the house. Try to limit sedentary leisure time to nothing more than an hour in a day.