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Your sedentary lifestyle is doing so much damage — here’s what to know and how to get moving

Ditch your sedentary lifestyle and step up your physical activity with these simple tips

a man running on the beach
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You already know physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk for chronic conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, which averages out to about 15 to 30 minutes of exercise per day for five days a week. Meeting these benchmarks is great.

However — and not to be discouraging here — they don’t form the only barometer for daily activity. Research shows that you can still get the recommended physical activity and lead a sedentary lifestyle. What gives, and what can you do? Here’s what to know about sedentary lifestyles, steps, and simple ways to add more movement to your day.

man at the computer
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I work out daily. Why is my lifestyle still considered sedentary?

The biggest reason is one there’s no shame in and that you can’t completely control: Your job. Modern technology has its perks — the ability to work remotely, for instance. However, we’re not on our feet like people were while working in factories during the industrial revolution.

Other issues: Commuting via mass transit or car requires tons of sitting still. In 2019, the average one-way commute was 27.6 minutes. Double that (because commutes are two ways), and it’s more than 55 minutes of commuting daily. The following year, the pandemic normalized remote work. When you’re not even walking from the car to the office, it’s even less time commuting.

man at wooden desk in front of 3 computer screens
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The dangers of living a sedentary lifestyle

A lifestyle that lacks movement carries risks. In fact, in 2002, the World Health Organization tabbed lack of physical activity as a leading cause of disease and all causes of mortality. Risks of a sedentary lifestyle include:

  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Severe outcomes from COVID-19
  • Obesity
  • Certain cancers, including colon cancer
  • Decreased mental health

This risk doesn’t mean you should simply give up bothering to even exercise for 30 minutes daily, quit your job, or dash back to the office. Some research indicates that sitting for 10 hours daily is the threshold for higher cardiovascular disease risk, for example. Still, these risks are worth noting if you find that you sit for long hours.

a man walking down the street listening to music
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How many steps should I be getting per day?

Step-counting has long been considered a way to gauge movement, particularly since daily physical activity can’t be calculated through exercise minutes and intensity alone. How a person spends the rest of the day matters too.

Typically, the benchmark of 10,000 steps has been hailed as the gold standard. However, that was based on a 1960s marketing campaign for a pedometer. A study published in October of 2022 says about 8,000 steps can reduce the risk of many diseases and chronic conditions, including sleep apnea and diabetes. The problem is that tracking steps is hard. You’re probably not counting them, and studies show that some trackers don’t always give accurate counts. They can provide a solid estimate, though, and encourage you to add more movement to your daily activity. Ultimately, the key is to move as much as possible within reason.

a man walking a dog
Zen Chung / Pexels

Ways to add more movement to your daily activity

There’s no need to quit your day job if it’s a remote desk job, nor do you need to run a marathon to add more movement to your day. A few simple tips will get you started.

Take the stairs

You’ve probably heard this tip before: Opting for the stairs over an elevator or escalator as often as possible is a way to step up your daily activity — literally. There’s a reason this advice is popular: It’s backed by science. Research from 2021 found that daily stair climbing can reduce the risk for metabolic syndrome, which is marked by symptoms like high cholesterol and diabetes, both of which can increase your risk of heart disease.

Stretch at your desk

Though desk stretches don’t add to your step count, they do count as movement. Your muscles will thank you if you have a desk job. Though we often focus on stretching to warm up and cool-down before and after exercise, sitting in one position for too long can cause stiffness. Try:

  • Reaching your arms overhead
  • Extending your clasped hands behind your back while pushing out the back
  • Twisting your torso to either side while leaving your feet on the ground

Walking lunches and meetings

Give on-the-go lunches and meetings a new meaning by taking them to the streets. Sandwiches and bottled water are easy to eat and drink while walking. You can do the same for meetings. Mute video if allowed and walk around your neighborhood as you discuss your to-dos with colleagues. You may find that movement and endorphins lower your stress and make you a better employee.

Remind yourself to move

It’s easy to get lost in your other daily tasks and forget to move. Some trackers, such as the Apple Watch, will automatically ping you to move if you haven’t in a while. If you don’t want to wear a tracker or don’t have one, you can simply set reminders on your phone. Try setting a reminder for once an hour. When the reminder goes off, get up, walk around the office or your home, or stretch.

Walk a dog

A dog is always a human’s best friend, but pups are especially beneficial for people trying to get more physical activity. Research shows that people who walk their dogs generally move more and enjoy health benefits like reduced likelihood of developing a chronic condition such as cardiovascular disease. If you have a dog, this tip is easy. Ensure the pup gets daily walks (which will keep them healthy too). If you don’t have a dog, consider volunteering at your local shelter. You’ll make a dog’s day (and may even bring one home).

a man in gray shorts stretching on sidewalk

The importance of starting small when adding more movement to your sedentary lifestyle

After reading about the risks of a sedentary lifestyle, you may be understandably tempted to sign up for the soonest marathon. Resist the urge — your body will actually thank you. Progressively increasing movement can help prevent injuries. For example, even seasoned marathon runners are instructed not to increase their mileage by more than 10% weekly.

Mentally, going from 0 to 100 in a day may feel like a rush at first. However, that output will likely be challenging to maintain if you haven’t done a progressive work-up. You’ll also want to settle on a physical activity that suits your schedule and lifestyle — you’re not going to quit your job and will likely need to schedule workouts around that commitment.

Exercise is a fantastic way to stay active, but heading out for a 30-minute jog in the morning and sitting for the rest of the day won’t get your body the physical activity necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. New research indicates that around 8,000 to 9,000 steps per day can lower your risk for many chronic diseases and conditions while keeping your weight in check. Small actions add up. Try taking the stairs or doing walking meetings and lunches. Though wearable devices don’t necessarily give accurate step counts, they can motivate you to move more. Apple Watch reminds people to stand every hour if they haven’t moved much during the previous 60 minutes. You can also put reminders on your phone. Focus on your individual physical and emotional health over step benchmarks. Everybody (and every body) needs different amounts of movement to stay healthy. A doctor can provide you with more actionable advice.

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BethAnn Mayer
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