8 Signs a Sedentary Lifestyle Is Hurting Your Health

Did you know one in four adults doesn’t meet the globally recommended physical activity levels? That’s unfortunate, considering that a sedentary lifestyle is linked to an “increased risk of adverse health outcomes, including weight gain and obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and increased risk of all-cause mortality,” says Jessica Matthews of Point Loma Nazarene University.

But, how do you know if you’re not moving enough? Read on to learn about various sedentary lifestyle signs to look out for and how they can impact your physical and mental health. Plus, we share a few simple solutions for getting up and moving more.

  • Jessica Matthews, DBH, is a national board-certified health and wellness coach and assistant professor of kinesiology and integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University.
  • Aimee Layton, Ph.D. is an exercise physiologist from Columbia University and a Peloton Health & Wellness Advisory Council member.
  • Joe Holder is a Nike Master Trainer and a health and wellness consultant.
  • Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, is a preventive cardiologist and founder of Heart-Tech Health.
  • Sanul Corrielus, MD, FAAC, is a board-certified cardiologist and owner of Corrielus Cardiology in Philadelphia.
  • Matt West is a psychologist, national speaker, and co-founder of the Boom Journal.

What Is a Sedentary Lifestyle?

A sedentary lifestyle is defined by the Sedentary Behavior Research Network (SBRN) as any waking behavior characterized by an energy expenditure of less than 1.5 metabolic equivalents, while in a sitting, reclining, or lying posture. In layperson’s terms, a sedentary lifestyle is marked by a deficiency of physical activity with long, uninterrupted periods or significant portions of the day spent sitting or lying down.

Simply put: Our bodies were not made to be stationary for long periods. And it doesn’t take long for sedentary tendencies to wreak havoc on your health. Research shows it can take just two weeks of inactivity (in young, healthy people) to cause significant health effects, including reduced muscle mass and metabolic changes.

Aimee Layton, Ph.D. of Columbia University

“Historically, if a person was sitting or lying down for hours when not asleep, they would have starved or gotten eaten by something. [Nowadays] that something becomes disease and premature aging.”

— Aimee Layton, Ph.D. of Columbia University

How Long Is Too Long to Sit Still?

The general recommendation is to reduce prolonged sedentary behavior to no more than 60 minutes at a time, says Matthews. To reduce inactivity, focus on a greater frequency of movement throughout the day.

“At the end of every hour, aim for three to six minutes of movement,” suggests Nike trainer Joe Holder. “Set an alarm and just stand up, walk around. Do some sit-to-stands from your chair.”

These “exercise snacks,” as Holder calls them, break up prolonged periods of sitting and get your blood flowing. “I can’t really speak enough about the need for you to let your body do what it was made to do: not sit,” Holder says.

Sedentary Lifestyle Signs

Still not sure if your habits are too sedentary? Here are some major signs you’re not moving enough for your mental and physical health, and that it’s time to boost your physical activity.

Fail to Meet Global Health Recommendations

One way to know if you are a sedentary person is to consider the World Health Organization’s guidelines, which recommend either 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week, plus two days of strength training. If you’re not meeting either of those suggestions, you’re likely not moving enough. The solution? Slowly build your exercise tolerance until you reach this threshold and beyond.

Spend More Than Half of Waking Hours Not Moving

Another helpful indicator is how much you move while awake. “Count the number of hours you sleep, and then subtract that from 24 hours. That number is the number of hours in the day you have to be active and engaged. If you spend more than 50 percent of that time sitting, reclining, and not moving, it’s important to find ways to change this,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, MD of Heart-Tech Health.

Being more active could be as simple as parking further away at the grocery store or taking a walking meeting. You can also opt to take the stairs instead of the elevator and add Holder’s “exercise snacks” to every hour of sitting.

Experience Fatigue—All the Time

Fatigue occurs from many factors—stress, a poor diet, hormone imbalances—but being sedentary also plays a role in extreme tiredness. The more you sit around, the more wiped out you’ll feel. That’s because the body—heart, lungs, muscles—is being “deconditioned,” which can happen in as little as a couple of days.

The good news: Research shows that moving can put the spring back in your step. One study that looked at the effect of exercise on folks who reported persistent levels of fatigue found that those who engaged in 20 minutes of either low- or medium-intensity exercise three times a week for six weeks experienced a 20 percent boost in energy levels.

And while both groups also reported a reduction in feelings of fatigue, the low-intensity group experienced a much higher drop. Translation: You don’t have to go hard to reap the benefits.

Notice Weight and Metabolism Changes

To keep your weight from fluctuating in an unhealthy way, you have to burn the same number of calories you consume. But when you’re too sedentary, your calorie intake stays the same while your energy expenditure plummets; those excess calories get stored as fat.

Similarly, being sedentary also affects your metabolism—the body’s process of converting food into energy. A slower metabolism means you’re burning fewer calories at rest.

“There is less blood flow and less metabolism,” Layton says. “Long term, that leads to diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, and other diseases.” If you notice you are too stagnant, focus on moving more before considering cutting additional calories from your diet.

Feel Winded

Minimal movement can make you feel winded faster. “The heart thrives on good oxygen flow,” says Sanul Corrielus, MD, FAAC, of Corrielus Cardiology.

As we sink deeper into the couch, Dr. Corrielus explains, “…our breathing gets shallow, which depletes the heart of good streams of oxygen supply and contributes to the deconditioning of the heart.” You may also experience palpitations, which “can lead to further deterioration of the heart function if not addressed effectively,” Dr. Corrielus adds.

The more stagnant a person, the greater the risk of mortality and heart disease, Dr. Steinbaum says. Research shows each additional hour per day spent watching television comes with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, sitting at least 10 hours a day (compared to sitting for less than five) is associated with a higher risk of heart attacks.

“Without movement and exercise, we have an increase in the sympathetic nervous system,” Dr. Steinbaum explains. “Sympathetic overdrive leads to an increase in stress hormones and inflammatory markers, leading to an increase in cardiovascular disease.”

As you age, it takes longer to recover from a sedentary lifestyle. That said, Dr. Correlius says it will take about eight to 10 weeks of consistent workouts to reverse the deconditioning. “Even if it’s just walking for 10 minutes every other day, the key is to start and be consistent,” Dr. Correlius notes.

Your goal should be to work up to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week. Need a little push to get you started? JAMA Cardiology reveals that just one session is enough to offer two to three hours of protection against damage to the heart.

Lose Quality Sleep

Sleep is precious. Not getting an adequate amount of sleep—the recommended seven to nine hours—can lead to metabolism issues, weaken your immune system, increase the risk of premature death, and more. And the longer you’re inactive, the more your sleep will suffer.

For example, spending more than 11 hours a day in chill mode (we’ve all binge-watched an entire season, let’s be honest) can lead to both reduced sleep quality and quantity. A meta-analysis also found that excessive sedentary habits raise the possibility of insomnia.

Rest assured, you’ll be able to sleep more soundly if you nail the recommended activity guidelines. Research reveals those who did were 95 percent less likely to feel overly sleepy throughout the day.

Detect a Mental Health Decline

Your mental health can also be affected by a lack of movement. If you notice a downturn in your mental status, consider adding more exercise to your daily routine.

“Studies have also shown that those people who are more sedentary have a decrease in psychological well-being and quality of life,” says Dr. Steinbaum, noting that these people also tend to be more depressed. Dr. Steinbaum adds that exercise is associated with the release of serotonin: “These ‘feel good’ hormones are what makes the ‘runner’s high’ that drives people to crave exercise and be committed to their exercise plans.”

How do you improve your declining mental health and inactivity at the same time? Mindfulness can play a crucial role. Becoming aware of your underactive tendencies and choosing to be active can help put your mind and mood in a better position.

“Mindfulness can strengthen our ability to combat stress and anxiety,” says Matt West of the Boom Journal. West strongly believes that moving mindfully is extremely beneficial to optimizing the relationship between fitness and mental health. For example, a study showed students who were either mindful or moving experienced a bump in mood and a decline in stress. When the habits were combined, the effects were further bolstered.

Notice Memory Lapses

Typically when we think of being sedentary, our minds zero in on physical side effects like muscle weakness, heart issues, and overall risk for diseases like cancer. But our brains need exercise just as much as our bodies do.

Research shows that hours spent sitting leads to less thickness in the medial temporal lobe, an area of the brain responsible for memory. This brain change might explain why you’ve been forgetful if you’ve been idle. But a dose of aerobic fitness—like treadmill walking—can not only boost this area but also help with age-related cognitive issues such as dementia.

Ideas for Increasing Movement in Your Day

Even a minimal increase in physical activity will improve your health and well-being. Health experts have emphasized that it’s better to start small and stick to it than not start at all. Try not to let intimidating fitness benchmarks like 10,000 steps a day keep you on the couch. Consistency and attainable goals will help you get away from a sedentary lifestyle.

Here are some easy ways to add movement to your daily schedule—at home or work.

  • Gardening and housework count. Though they may be standard chores you need to complete, cleaning the home, doing yard work, or gardening are all physical activities. Consider a faster pace for increased intensity.
  • Exercise at home (even while watching TV). While you can certainly find workout videos and routines to follow, you can also simply move while watching your favorite show. Try walking in place, lifting weights, or using an exercise bike.
  • Take a walk. A morning or evening walk around your neighborhood is a perfect way to add activity to your day. If you have kids or a dog, take them with you.
  • Get up and move while working. Even if you have a desk job, you can get up and stretch or move in place every hour. You can also stand when talking on the phone. If you work from home, consider purchasing a standing desk.
  • Walk during breaks. Take part of your lunch or smaller breaks to walk a lap around the building. Go outside for some sun and vitamin D while you’re at it.
  • Take the stairs. Avoid using the elevator; instead, use the stairs to get from floor to floor. If on your lunch break, use the stairs for a small stair-climbing session.