Of all the health risks we face in the 21st century, one of the least talked about is our increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
Here is why we need to move more.
Sedentary isn’t a word you hear thrown around a lot, which is rather ironic when you consider how much time we spend this way. It’s an adjective that describes time spent doing almost no physical activity, primarily in a seated posture. For a lot of us, this is upwards of 6 hours a day and in some cases much more. When we take time spent sleeping into account, this leaves us with just a fraction of our day left over for movement. The effects of this relatively new lifestyle on our health and even our evolution as a species are becoming more apparent all the time.
Compared to most of our ancestors who lived in hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies, our bones are thinner, our muscles weaker and our stamina diminished. “But!” you say, “our modern technology more than compensates for these losses.” That may be true, but diminished strength and stamina are not the only consequences of our lack of movement. The WHO states that sedentary lifestyles may be responsible for up to two million deaths a year and that between 60-85% of people live this way. Perhaps surprisingly, the problem is equally prevalent in both developed and developing countries. A virus anywhere near as deadly and widespread is considered a pandemic.
Health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle
This way of life doubles your risk of cardiovascular diseases such as strokes, heart attacks and a long list of others. It can cause diabetes or obesity and exacerbate both. It’s also associated with increased risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression, anxiety and a host of other mental and physical disorders.
Another problem with sedentary lifestyles is that they go hand in hand with other unhealthy habits such as tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption and a poor diet. All of these things also increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, strokes and obesity. In fact, chronic diseases associated with these lifestyle choices are now the leading cause of death in every region of the world except Sub-Saharan Africa. Most are entirely preventable.
Unsurprisingly, the cure for the ill effects of a sedentary lifestyle is movement. That part may be obvious, but the whole picture is a little more complex.
Exercise vs Activity
Our modern conception of physical activity is quite different from that of most of the people that ever lived. For the majority of us, thinking about being more active conjures ideas such as joining a gym or pilates class. Yet these activities have only existed for a few generations. Even much older ones such as dance, yoga and pre-modern sports were mostly practiced for cultural or spiritual reasons rather than to exercise. The idea of doing intensive physical activity for health or pure enjoyment is relatively recent and has grown in tandem with our ever-increasing reliance on technology, unprecedented amounts of leisure time and the gradual realization that our sedentary lifestyle is literally killing us.
Today, we have countless sports and activities to choose from. We venerate professional athletes and strive to be skinnier or more muscular, fitter or able to lift heavier weights. But do these ideals actually have anything to do with health? The science says not. Olympic
athletes, for example, only live on average 2.8 years longer than an average Joe or Jane. In fact, many of the healthiest and longest-living people on the planet have never set a single moment aside for exercise.
So-called ‘Blue Zones’ such as the islands of Sardinia in Italy or Okinawa in Japan have become famous for being home to some of the oldest and healthiest people in the world. At first, scientists and demographers assumed that this was simply down to good genes. Then a famous study of hundreds of sets of Danish twins proved that longevity was only mildly heritable. Since then, hundreds of studies have been done examining the lifestyles of people living in Blue Zones in an attempt to figure out their secrets.
Some of the answers they came up with include a sense of purpose and belonging within their communities, not smoking, eating predominantly plant-based diets and spending their lives in relatively unpolluted environments. Ultimately, however, one factor seems to be more decisive than all the rest. Most of these people move constantly. Instead of intense exercise, they perform hours of low-level physical activity almost every day.
To match their output or that of our prehistoric ancestors, you would need to take at least 10 – 15 000 steps each day. That’s a number most of us will never reach unless you have time to go for a 7-mile walk at lunch. Fortunately, the research also tells us that 60 – 75 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every day seems to eliminate the higher risks for death and chronic disease associated with a sedentary lifestyle. There is also a consensus forming that says that excessive high-intensity exercise probably drives metabolism and cell turnover to the point where the ultimate effect is decreased longevity.
What is moderate-intensity activity?
Moderate-intensity activity is anything that involves a lot of movement but does not increase your heart rate or breathing to high levels. If you can still talk just about normally while doing the activity, it is probably in the moderate category. Here are some examples of activities that can help you to avoid the worst effects of a sedentary lifestyle:
- Brisk walking & easy – moderate hikes
- Riding a bicycle at less than 10 mph
- Light dancing
- Canoeing or paddling
- Woodwork and other crafts
- Some forms of yoga
- Housework and light maintenance
- Playing games in the garden with your kids
One of the best ways to ensure that you move enough is to integrate one or more of these activities into your morning or evening routine. Other great ideas include getting a standing desk for your workspace, trying to take the stairs as often as possible and purchasing a pedometer or smartwatch to track your progress and keep you motivated. Ultimately, you’ll need to figure out what works best for you. Always remember, life and movement walk hand in hand.