Q: I’ve been seeing news that “sedentary behavior” is bad for your health. Is being sedentary the same as not getting enough exercise, or is this something different?
A: You might think of sedentary behavior and the amount of physical activity you get as two sides of the same coin – and both affect your health. Most studies on the health benefits of physical activity have traditionally looked at how often people spend at least 10 minutes doing moderate and vigorous physical activities, such as brisk walking, jogging, gardening, dancing, biking and other sports. Although any physical activity is better than none, the recommendation is to accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate activity daily for cancer prevention, and accumulating 60 minutes a day seems to provide even more protection.
Sedentary behavior refers to what you do the rest of the day. Even people who get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity daily may spend large amounts of time sitting at work, at home and while traveling from one place to another. Emerging research links more time spent sitting to increased weight, waist size, fasting blood sugar, blood triglycerides and insulin levels. All of these are markers for greater risk of heart disease and create a metabolic environment that seems to pave the way for some types of cancer. Especially for people whose days involve a lot of sitting, including some standing or brief walking every hour or so throughout the day links to healthier waist size and less chronic inflammation. Excess abdominal fat and chronic inflammation are both linked to increased risk of several types of cancer, as well as heart disease and diabetes. So small amounts of movement – taking stairs rather than an elevator, walking down the hall, standing to talk on the phone – may bring important benefits even if they don’t count toward “moderate” physical activity. We may really be looking at two separate aspects of lifestyle that are both important for health: spending less time sitting and accumulating 30 minutes or more of moderate activity each day.
Our Move Away from the Desk video offers a demonstration on exercises you can do in the office.