Sedentary behaviour – It’s impact

Why Should We Sit less? Insights on Sedentary Behaviour

 

Introduction

Our daily routine comprises different activities. Some of these activities, for example, swimming, running, sports, brisk walking, gardening, etc. involve the use of our energy reserves. On the other hand, activities like watching television, lying down while awake, browsing the internet, reading, etc. do not involve the expenditure of much energy. These are sedentary activities and habits. It is likely that sedentary activities are confused with physical inactivity. However, these two terms are not the same. It is important to understand the difference between these terms and know more about our sedentary behaviour because it is among the leading causes of many disorders and health problems.

 

Physical activity refers to any activity that allows your body to move, increases your heart rate and breathing, and causes your body to burn energy. Physical inactivity refers to the condition where a person does not meet the guidelines for optimal physical activity. In contrast, sedentary behaviour refers to any waking behaviour with extremely low energy expenditure.

 

Several research groups have studied sedentary behaviour, and arrived at an agreed definition of the term. Technically speaking, a sedentary state indicates lying down or sitting without using more than 1.5 metabolic equivalents of energy. In simpler terms, this refers to extremely low energy utilisation by the body. If a person spends a minimum of 6 hours of their waking time in this sedentary state, they have sedentary behaviour. According to a Health Survey for England 2012, almost 30% of the adult population in England was sedentary for a minimum of 6 hours during the week, and this group expanded to include 37% of the population on weekends.

 

Types of Sedentary Behaviour

Sedentary behaviour can be of different types, and most of the time, they are a ‘normal’ inclusion of our daily routine. For example:

 

  • Being sedentary at work or school

This refers to the time we spend at work or school or university where we are required to sit down.

 

  • Being sedentary at home

This refers to the state of being sedentary at home, while watching television, playing games, surfing the internet, etc.

 

  • Being sedentary while travelling

This refers to being sedentary while driving a car, sitting on public transport, etc.

 

Looking at the above types, it is clear that most of these instances are a normal part of our daily routine. However, it is important to limit our sedentary behaviour because of the many risks it poses to our health.

 

Why is Sedentary Behaviour a Problem?

There is conclusive evidence that sedentary behaviour increases the chance of developing some serious health conditions, for example, heart disease and type-2 diabetes.  In addition, the following health problems have also been associated with increased sedentary behaviour:

 

  • An overall lack of activity might result in the person acquiring a feeling of depression and being under the weather.
  • Weight gain that may become uncontrolled, resulting in obesity.
  • A feeling of lethargy and low energy.
  • Increased blood pressure, which itself results in many health issues.
  • Alteration in sleep patterns and poor quality of sleep.
  • Higher chances of weakening bones.
  • Decreased stamina and agility.
  • Development of back problems because of poor posture.
  • Increased risk of certain types of cancer, for example, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and endometrial cancer.

 

These health problems affect both the patient and the government’s healthcare system. Therefore, it is best to cut down our sedentary behaviour.

 

Recommendations of Physical Activity

Because of the plethora of potential problems presented by sedentary behaviour, the four home countries’ chief medical officers in the UK have suggested physical activity levels to combat sedentary behaviours.

 

They recommend that children and young adults should have moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least an hour daily. These activities could include sports, swimming, cycling or jogging, among many others that require active movement of the body and energy expenditure. For adults, they recommend a weekly minimum of 150 minutes of activities that are moderate to vigorous in intensity.

 

Moderately intense activities are those that make a person breathe harder and faster, increase their heart rate, but allow them to maintain a conversation. On the other hand, vigorously intense activities raise the person’s heart rate and breathing rate so much that he/she won’t be able to hold a conversation. It is best to consult a medical practitioner regarding the activities that you can (or should) include in your daily routine.

 

Why has our sedentary behaviour increased?

Over the years, our lifestyle has seen a drastic change. In addition, globalization and industrialisation have brought about major changes in a person’s lifestyle. Here are some reasons why our sedentary behaviour has increased over the years.

 

  • Shift in activity profile over the years

With the advent of technology, we have machines that do all the hard work for us. Right from farming equipment to appliances we use at home, machines have made our life a lot easier. Gone are the days when we used to wash our clothes and dishes manually or exert ourselves physically for other daily chores. Thanks to machines that have invaded our lives, we end up doing far less work manually, and thus, we have more time to simply lie down or sit idle.

 

  • Screen-based leisure activities

The rapid increase in the types and numbers of screen-based leisure activities has drastically increased our screen time and resulted in an increase in our sedentary behaviour as well. It has become common even for very young children to spend considerable time in front of digital devices, for example, video games, tablets, smartphones etc. This time counts as sedentary behaviour. Likewise, adults have also fallen prey to screen time.

 

  • Screen-based work activities

The screens of digital devices are not only used for leisure. They have also become an indispensable part of many job profiles. With young and not-so-young professionals spending so much of their working time sitting, their sedentary behaviour is bound to increase.

 

How to reduce sedentary behaviours (actionable steps)

The only way to tackle increasing sedentary behaviour is to get more physically active. This can be done through two distinct approaches:

 

  • Increase physical activity

The most straightforward solution to combating a sedentary lifestyle is to become physically more active. This can be done by:

  • Devoting regular time to exercise so that you burn a fixed number of calories every day, keep your body active, and counter the effects of sedentary habits.
  • Joining walking groups that motivate you to walk regularly and over great distances. With regular participation in such group events, you will find your body getting fitter and healthier.
  • Asking friends to walk with you is another great way to ensure a regular work-out. This way, you will spend some quality time with your buddies while reaping the health benefits of walking and staying physically active.
  • Opting for ergonomic designs of furniture that allow employees to work while sitting and while standing. This is a great idea that could be used in offices. It will be immensely useful for employees who have jobs that require sitting for long hours.

 

  • Change habits that involve sitting idle

This approach is not as straightforward as the first one, but it is doable and shows instant results. Here are some ways by which you can implement this approach in your daily life:

  • Standing instead of sitting in public transport for short distances. This will make your body use more energy and thus, will reduce sedentary activity.
  • Getting off the bus or train one stop earlier and walking to your destination is also a great way to give your body a break from sedentary behaviour of sitting.
  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is yet another efficient and effective way to make your body move and increase your physical activity, thereby countering the effects of sedentary behaviour.
  • Spending more time doing chores around the house, for example, gardening, painting the walls and fences, etc. By doing these tasks yourself instead of hiring someone, you will counter the effects of sedentary
  • Setting reminders to stand up at work every 30 minutes. This technique is immensely helpful for those whose job profile requires sitting for long hours. Just a 2-minute break for stretching or walking a few meters is enough to break your body’s sedentary routine.
  • Walking whenever possible is yet another great way to move your body and burn calories. You can do this while talking on the phone, for example, or by taking a little stroll during your lunch break at work. If you consciously look for occasions to walk, you will find many throughout the day.
  • Conscious reduction in screen time when possible. Screen time usually results in sedentary behaviours because we get too comfortable lying down or sitting in front of our digital devices. Making a conscious reduction in your screen time will automatically reduce your sedentary behaviour.

 

Conclusion

While there is no official time-limit to sedentary activities for adults and children, one should try to adhere to the minimum physical activity guidelines, as mentioned above. There is no proven baseline limit of sedentary behaviour that is harmful, but we should consciously try to minimise it.

 

An ideal strategy to reduce our sedentary behaviour will include increased physical activity at home and at the workplace, reduction of screen time, and alteration of our habits to make our body move more. If we formulate our own strategy to combat our increasing sedentary behaviours, our health and overall wellness will surely improve.

Originally written 10th October 2019