On average, Americans currently spend around 11 hours a day sitting and research suggests that only about 20% of adults are meeting physical activity guidelines. The trend toward increasingly sedentary lifestyles is becoming a significant public health issue, resulting in an estimated $24 billion in direct medical spending. Research has long shown that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of heart disease and decreases life span. However, despite being linked to a number of chronic health conditions, long periods of sitting and inactivity are only increasing with growing technology and media consumption.

It is estimated that less than 7% of Americans engage in the minimum required amount of physical activity although numerous studies have confirmed the detrimental effects this has on physical and mental health. Leading a sedentary lifestyle has been linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even premature death as extended periods of inactivity reduce metabolism and essential bodily functions. Although the sedentary trend cannot be easily reversed, new research aims to evaluate potential methods of lowering these risks.

Exercise Proven a Possible Solution

A large recent study from researchers at the University of Sydney suggests that the detrimental health effects of hours spent sitting could be countered with regular exercise. Lead researcher Dr. Emmanuel Stamatakis and his team analyzed nearly 150,000 Australian adults, none of which had prior history of heart disease or cancer, to determine whether dedicated, moderate exercise could offset time spent seated. The results revealed that regular moderate to vigorous intensity exercise – at least 30 minutes on most days – could mitigate the consequences of sedentary hours.

Enough activity, such as walking, strenuous housework, and gardening, in conjunction with regular exercise decreased the risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease-related mortality. An exception applied to people who sat for more than 8 hours a day, in that exercise was found to lower, but not eliminate, the health risks associated with sedentary living. For individuals who spend upwards of 8 hours a day seated, larger and more strenuous amounts of exercise are needed to offset potential complications.

Over nine years of the study, nearly 8,700 participants died, including more than 1,600 deaths related to cardiovascular disease. The link between increased mortality risk and a sedentary lifestyle was clearest among individuals who engaged in little to no exercise – these participants were more likely to die during the study period. Non-exercisers who sat for more than 8 hours a day were over 50% more likely to die compared to individuals who sat for less than 4 hours daily.

How Much Exercise is Needed?

Dr. Matthew Martinez, chair of the American College of Cardiology’s sports and exercise section leadership council stresses the message that even some exercise has a beneficial effect. “Going from zero minutes to 60 minutes of exercise every day is tough. So just try adding a little bit of activity each day,” Martinez said. Actively replacing sitting with movement at any time is possible and important, especially movement that increases heart rate, like fast walking, stair climbing, and carrying groceries.

While the majority of people who sit for 8 hours a day or less are recommended 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week, individuals who spend a significant portion of their day seated may need to engage in higher amounts of exercise, as proven by Dr. Stamatakis and his team.

Although these findings apply to relatively healthy people who aim to prevent cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions, the benefits of dedicated, regular exercise on physical and mental health are well-known. Incorporating more physical activity into the day should be recommended to all individuals, regardless of health condition, in order to diminish the health risks associated with increased sedentary living and improve overall wellbeing.