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The Health Impacts of a Sedentary Lifestyle: Problems and Solutions

The Process of Life Must be Kept in Motion.

Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, Founder of Osteopathy

We now live in a world where technological advancement has made life easier and more comfortable. Unfortunately, comfort comes with a price. Our modern lifestyles have made it easier to become unhealthy. Over the past several decades, most of the foods we eat contain little to no nutrition, physical activities are rarely prioritized, and many of us use tobacco and abuse alcohol. 

All these factors have increased our risk for many different health problems, signifying the link between a sedentary lifestyle and the ever-increasing prevalence of diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), obesity, and diabetes. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 60% of the global population lives a sedentary life. Lack of movement is a modern-day plague, a major contributor to morbidity and mortality, and the single biggest obstacle to development around the world. And while lifestyle diseases are one of the more serious public health issues of our time, they remain largely ignored and difficult to address. 

In this article, we’ll discuss three of the major lifestyle diseases you can get from leading a sedentary lifestyle, along with ways to improve them. After all, living healthy shouldn’t be just an option, but a way of life.

What is a sedentary lifestyle?

The Sedentary Behavior Research Network defines sedentary behavior as any time a person is sitting or lying down. This includes watching TV, computer use, reading, driving a car, or riding a bus. Additionally, when you do all these things for more than six hours a day without meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines, it can lead to a sedentary lifestyle. Studies suggest that having a sedentary lifestyle causes the development of lifestyle diseases.

What is a lifestyle disease?

Lifestyle diseases are a subset of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) associated with the day-to-day habits of an individual or group of people. These diseases are caused by lack of physical activities, unhealthy eating, smoking tobacco, and alcohol abuse. Thus, such disease can be prevented by changes in diet, behavior, and lifestyle. 

How does a sedentary lifestyle affect your body?

Physical activity promotes proper blood circulation, improves bone and muscle strength, and helps maintain healthy body weight. That said, having a sedentary lifestyle means:

  • You burn fewer calories, increasing your likelihood of gaining weight;
  • You may lose muscle strength and endurance;
  • Your bones may lose some mineral content and get weaker;
  • Your immune system may be compromised;
  • You may have poor blood circulation;
  • Your metabolism may be affected, making it difficult to breakdown fats and sugars;
  • Your body may have more inflammation; and
  • You may develop a hormonal imbalance.

Health Consequences of a Sedentary Lifestyle

Having a sedentary lifestyle is one of the causes of many chronic diseases or NCDs. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that physical inactivity coupled with an unhealthy diet has indeed contribute to the development of diseases such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Some types of cancer
  • Early death

According to WHO, about 2 million people die every year as a result of physical inactivity. Furthermore, one of their studies suggests that a sedentary lifestyle is one of the ten leading causes of death and disability in the world. The more sedentary you become, the higher your risk is of having diseases and dying early.

3 Major Lifestyle Diseases

CVD, Obesity, and Type 2 Diabetes. What do all these diseases have in common? — all of them can be prevented with adequate exercise and a healthy diet. Unfortunately, many of us fail to engage in physical activity and eat healthy foods. Among the many chronic diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle, we’ll focus more on these 3 major lifestyle diseases.

1. Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are a group of disorders that affect your heart and blood vessels. CVDs are the number one cause of death globally, accounting for 17.9 million deaths in 2019 alone. In other words, that is 32% of all deaths around the world. In comparison, the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic as of December 23, 2021, is 5.39 million (2 years). Diseases that fall under CVD include:

  • Coronary heart disease (CHD) — a blood vessel disease affecting the heart muscle;
  • Cerebrovascular disease — a blood vessel disease affecting the brain; 
  • Peripheral arterial disease — a blood vessel disease affecting the arms and legs
  • Rheumatic heart disease — damage to the heart muscle and heart valve caused by streptococcal bacteria; and
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) — accumulation of blood clots in the leg veins.

What are the risk factors of CVD?

High blood pressure54% of strokes, 47% of CHDsAge14.2% (45 above)
Abnormal blood lipids16.5% Heredity50% of offspring
Tobacco use20%Family historySiblings – 45% 
Offspring – 60-75%
Physical inactivity
Gender37.4% in men
35% in women
Unhealthy diet (salt)More than 60%Ethnicity or Race11.4% of whites
10% of blacks
8.8% of Hispanics
6.3% of Asians
Heavy alcohol use14% of hemorrhagic stroke

As you can see, aside from age and genes, most of the causes of CVD can be prevented by healthy changes in lifestyle and diet. 

How does a sedentary lifestyle contribute to CVD?

People who are more physically active are less likely to develop heart disease. In effect, inactivity increases the build-up of fatty deposits in the inner walls of blood vessels, blocking the flow of blood going to the heart or brain. These deposits can cause a heart attack if they’re on the way to your heart, and stroke, if the source is the vessels that supply blood to your brain.

What are the ways to prevent CVD?

There are many ways to prevent heart disease, but you can start with these tips to boost your heart health:

  • Quit smoking (tobacco)
  • Limit or avoid alcohol
  • Aim for at least 30 to 60 minutes of daily activity
  • Eat foods that are good for the heart (i.e., vegetables, fruits, beans, lean meat & fish)
  • Maintain a healthy weight (check body mass index)
  • Get good quality sleep (at least 7 hours)
  • Manage stress
  • Get regular screenings (i.e., blood pressure & cholesterol levels).

2. Obesity

It is well known that obesity and sedentary lifestyle are closely connected. They are associated with other diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Obesity is a complex condition of having too much body fat or being too heavy for one’s height. It is also the most prevalent nutritional problem in Western Societies. 

In 2016, obesity reached an all-time high with over 650 million obese individuals. That is 13% of the adult population aged 18 years and older. Children were not exempted with around 39 million children under the age of five being overweight or obese (2020.) 

Obesity certainly places a severe burden on health care systems with about 2.8 million people dying each year. 

What are the risk factors of obesity?

Lack of physical activityAge
Unhealthy eating behaviors:
Eating more calories than you useEating too much saturated and trans fatsEating foods high in added sugars
Not enough sleepGender
High amounts of stressRace or Ethnicity

How does a sedentary lifestyle cause obesity?

A lot of factors can cause obesity including unhealthy environments, but the main cause is eating too ultra-processed foods while moving too little. While the reason still remains unclear, it is likely more complicated than an energy in, energy out equation. Behavioral cues are likely a factor. For instance, in adolescents, sedentary behaviors such as television watching was associated with an increased intake of soft drinks and ultra-processed foods and less intake of fruits and vegetables.

What are the ways to prevent obesity?

Like most non-communicable diseases, obesity is largely preventable. At an individual level, you can start by making healthier food choices and having regular physical activity. You can do this by:

  • Limiting energy intake from fats and sugars;
  • Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts instead; and
  • Engage in regular physical activity:
  • Children – 60 minutes per day
  • Adults – 150 minutes spread through the week.

However, individual responsibility can only do so much if people don’t have access to a healthy lifestyle. Society should also play its part to support individuals in following the above recommendations by making regular physical activity and healthier dietary choices available, affordable, and easily accessible to everyone. 

Here are a few things the food industry can do to help promote healthy diets:

  • Reduce the fat, sugar, and salt content of processed foods;
  • Ensure that all consumers can have affordable healthy and nutritious food choices; and
  • Ensure that the workplace has healthy food options available and that regular physical activity practices are supported.

3. Type 2 Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic metabolic disorder in which your body cannot regulate sugar. There are different types of diabetes, but the one often associated with a sedentary lifestyle and obesity is type 2 diabetes. It is also the most common form of diabetes (95%.)

The number of people with diabetes has more than tripled since the 1980s (108 million), reaching up to 537 million in 2021. The worldwide prevalence continues to increase with an estimated 643 million by 2030. Diabetes became the ninth leading cause of death globally in 2019, with a death toll approximating 1.5 million.

Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are most likely to blame for the increase in diabetes, accounting for 80% of the increase. The reduction in physical activity alone increases the burden of diabetes by 7%, while 60-85% of new cases of diabetes are attributed to overweight and obesity. 

Diabetes has no cure without addressing the diet, ensuring regular exercise, and promoting weight loss. 

What are the risk factors of type 2 diabetes?

Unhealthy dietAgeLow socioeconomic status
Physical inactivityGenetics
Obesity or overweightRace
Heavy alcohol use & smokingDistribution of fat in the body
Psychological stressGender
Taking hikes outdoors is not only refreshing for your body but a great way to counteract a sedentary lifestyle.
Photo by Andre Furtado on Pexels.com

How does a sedentary lifestyle cause diabetes?

When you are sedentary, your metabolism slows down and your body needs to work harder to absorb sugar and make insulin. Lack of physical activity coupled with unhealthy eating habits often leads to obesity, which greatly predisposes people to diabetes. 

Also, did you know that sitting for more than 6 hours a day doubles your risk for developing type 2 diabetes, even with regular exercise? This is an interesting new study since most jobs in modern society need us to sit down. Generally, this means that everyone could be at risk.

That said, there are limitations to this study. There’s not enough evidence to support the notion that if you are physically active but sit down for long periods, you still have an increased risk of diabetes. What is clear, however, is that you can benefit from replacing some of your time sitting down by standing or walking. Or how about a standing workstation? 

What are the ways to prevent diabetes?

While you can’t change certain factors — such as age, genes, or past behaviors — there are many actions you can take to reduce your risk of diabetes. Here are some examples:

  • Cut back on sugar and refined carbs from your diet;
  • Exercise regularly to improve insulin sensitivity;
  • Drink water instead of other sweetened beverages;
  • Lose weight (if you are obese or overweight);
  • Quit smoking & limit alcohol intake;
  • Follow a ketogenic (very low-carb) diet;
  • Avoid sedentary behaviors;
  • Eat a high-fiber, plant-based diet;
  • Optimize vitamin D levels;
  • Minimize consumption of processed foods; and
  • Include coffee or tea in your diet.
getting outdoors is a great way to avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Takeaway: Physical Activity is the Key to Health and Longevity

Times have changed along with the way we live. It is not surprising that the more comfortable our lives are, the more sedentary we become. This puts each one of us at risk for developing lifestyle diseases.

The reason these lifestyle diseases are so prevalent is because only about one in five adults and teens get enough exercise to maintain good health. Most of the things we do in our leisure time are associated with inactivity: things like watching TV, smartphone scrolling, drinking alcohol, smoking, and eating unhealthy foods. Even most of the jobs in recent years involve sitting continuously for long hours.

So, how do we keep ourselves healthy despite the circumstances we now live in? People of all ages can start by being more active and sitting down less. Countless studies have confirmed the connections between physical activity and overall health and well-being. 

You can refer to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for recommendations of the amount of physical activity. The guidelines are based on current scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of physical activity in disease prevention and a better quality of life.


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