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How Harmful Is a Sedentary Lifestyle? (+ Signs of Low Activity)

Medically Approved by Dr. Edward Salko

Table of Contents

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Sitting down for a large portion of the day only means trouble for your physical, mental, and social health. Upfront, staying sedentary may seem harmless, but in hindsight, it brings many adverse effects.

Having a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk of developing chronic metabolic diseases, cancer, and other health complications. It also triggers mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and poor self-image. All of these lead to social isolation and loneliness. 

Read on to find out how harmful sedentism could truly be.

Sedentary Lifestyle Definition

A sedentary lifestyle or low-movement lifestyle is built around low activity levels in a day. It is characterized by spending the majority of time sitting, lying down, or staying still without any significant movement. 

Although sedentary behaviors have long been recognized, they gained notoriety with the rise of desk jobs that promote prolonged sitting. In addition, other activities that stirred away from expending energy by being active became the norm. This includes watching television, reading, internet surfing, and many more.

Eventually, these activities were embedded in the daily routine of many. The battle between exercising and getting into physical activities, against staying on the couch, became one-sided, with inactivity taking the lead over the others. 

It was only a matter of time before the sitting disease took the limelight on the global stage, especially since people sit an average of 4.7 up to 6.5 hours per day. Although we tossed the term sedentary activity around, it shouldn’t be ignored as its long-term effects can be life-threatening. 

Harmful Effects of Sedentary Lifestyle

When people said that sitting is the new smoking, they weren’t entirely wrong. While prolonged sitting does not directly target your organs as smoking does, it brings with it fatal damage if left unaddressed. 

Sedentary lifestyle effects span from the physical and mental to the social areas of living. All of which can be easily neglected until the consequences become hard to ignore. 

  1. Increased risk of mortality from various diseases

Sedentary activities influence your health and wellness in multiple ways. But the biggest drawback of this lifestyle is the fact that you have a higher risk of developing various disorders. To make it worse, your mortality rate for these conditions also rises through the roof. 

The following are diseases you’ll most likely develop as a result of sedentary activity. 

  • Cardiovascular diseases (heart attack and vein-related problems)

Sedentary behavior is a significant driving force in the acquisition of cardiovascular disorders such as heart disease, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), hypertension, and stroke. 

Lack of sufficient activity prevents proper use and de-accumulation of cholesterol that narrows the blood vessels, especially among men. As a result, your cardiovascular system becomes inefficient in its function, with clogged blood clots becoming a high risk.  

  • Obesity

Low activity means fewer opportunities for you to burn more calories aside from static metabolism. This means increased adiposity or cholesterol build-up leading to weight gain and even obesity. The relationship between sedentary behavior and obesity has long been established for this reason and more.  

  • Type 2 diabetes 

Sedentary behavior alters metabolism, which includes increasing insulin resistance that leads to high blood sugar levels. A 2022 study highlights the direct correlation of sedentary time with diabetes mellitus. It shows how your risk for diabetes increases with how long or often you have less energy expenditure. 

  • Certain cancers

 Lack of physical activities and sedentary behaviors, along with obesity, already account for the increase in the risk of developing lung, endometrial, and colon cancers. In addition, It’s independently linked to an even higher risk of all-cause mortality, including cancer death. 

  • Osteoporosis

Poor bone health is a direct consequence of low activity. As a result, bones become more fragile. This is particularly alarming for women, who have a higher susceptibility to developing osteoporosis or low bone density. 

  1. Likelihood of developing mental health problems

It’s not just your physical health that gradually suffers when you adopt sedentism. Your mental well-being is at stake, including your cognitive functions and emotional responses. 

When you neglect physical activity, the brain loses opportunities to properly produce neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) and various hormones that influence mood, emotion, and overall mental health. 

For example, exercising and even light physical activities you can do at home can help produce serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters play crucial roles in many brain and bodily functions. But they are most notable for driving the sense of happiness and being the “reward center,” respectively.    

Low levels of these neurotransmitters can drive mental concerns such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, the physical impact of sedentary activity, especially obesity, can pull down self-esteem and self-image, aggravating these mental struggles. 

  1. Difficulties in executing daily functions and poor social engagement

Adding up the physical and mental sedentary lifestyle effects, you can surely expect an imbalance in your social life as well. For one, the dwindling energy levels can leave you fatigued and out of focus, directly impacting your work and everyday routine. 

In addition, other activities linked to sedentism can also pull you out of healthy activities like socialization. In the US, about 40% of Americans have become couch potatoes and would prefer spending their time in a passive state instead of increasing their mobility. 

This decreases interest in engaging with others or making an effort to interact publicly. As a result, people miss out on the crucial benefits of socializing, such as improved cognitive functions, better memory, and a sense of belonging. 

Signs of Sedentary Behavior

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It’s easy to tell if you’re not active enough. For one, you need to ask yourself, when was the last time you exercised, did sport, or walked a long distance at least? If you’re doing minor chores or getting into physical activities to a lesser degree, it may not be enough – especially if you show the following signs of a sedentary lifestyle.

  • Fatigue: You feel exhausted all the time, even though you haven’t done anything rigorous. Lack of regular movement leaves your bones and muscles in a deconditioned state. As a result, when you do try to be more active, you easily feel tired. 
  • Sleep problems: Research shows that a sedentary activity is associated with poor sleep quality. For example, people with low levels of physical activity tend to have trouble getting enough sleep.  
  • Weight gain: Altered metabolism is a hallmark of sedentary lifestyle effects. This can be linked to the fact that you’re burning fewer calories while taking more in. These lead primarily to weight gain and other metabolic disorders. 
  • Foggy brain: If you’re not sustaining an active lifestyle, you may become more forgetful or have trouble concentrating. Cognitive health gets affected by sedentary behavior due to its impact on the production of neurotransmitters that affects mood and energy levels. 
  • Digestive problems: Lack of exercise can lead to gastrointestinal problems like constipation. It’s also linked to more severe issues, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 
  • Unhealthy skin: The impact of inactivity on your mental health influences your body’s susceptibility to inflammation, which can manifest in your skin. As a result, you may observe skin issues such as a lack of moisture and even premature aging

Examples of Sedentary Activities

Plenty of sedentary lifestyle examples can be cited, especially now that we have the means and technology to limit mobility, such as booking food deliveries and ordering items online. But the following are the most common sedentary behaviors that often lead to prolonged sitting:

  • Watching television
  • Lying down all day
  • Playing video games
  • Performing desk jobs
  • Sitting during commute 
  • Extended screen time
  • Reading books 
  • Driving vehicles 

Practically, any activity that pushes you to sit or lie down for a long time counts as sedentary behavior. The rule of thumb is that if you remain in such a position for about four hours without moving an inch, it’s a driving force for the low-movement lifestyle. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the risks of a sedentary lifestyle?

If you are living a sedentary lifestyle, you have a higher risk for health problems like heart disease, vein-related disorders, obesity, diabetes, cancer, depression, anxiety, and many more. Not only that, but you also have a higher all-cause mortality rate due to cumulative alterations in crucial functions such as metabolism, neurotransmitter production, bone and muscle endurance, etc. 

How do I stop a sedentary lifestyle?

Start deviating from a sedentary lifestyle by being conscious about your sitting time. Include exercise in your daily routine, get a standing desk, set the alarm for when you should stand, and be involved in activities that lead you away from your couch. 

Can you reverse years of a sedentary lifestyle?

You can combat the effects of a sedentary lifestyle by gradually becoming more active. But again, how much you can reverse depends on the degree of consequence caused by years of low activity. Still, with guidance from a healthcare professional and your commitment to self-improvement, you can reclaim your health and wellness. 

The Bottom Line

Poor health caused by a low-movement lifestyle is obviously preventable. But much like behaviors already embedded in your system, this could be easier said than done. Still, understanding the harmful risks of a sedentary lifestyle can give you the drive to take action in fighting the sitting disease. 

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