Sitting still is more dangerous than being fat

March 23, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

I have great news for every one of my dear sedentary, overweight, guilt-ridden, non-exercising readers.

Forget “exercising,” as in treadmill treading, weight lifting, jogging, water aerobics and all that. And forget 30 minutes a day, the usual prescribed minimum.

I know you’re saying, “But, Dr. Connealy, we all know exercise is essential for health. That’s not true now?”

Of course, that’s still true. But we all know how hard it is to reach that 30-minute per day bar.

That’s why I want to share with you a groundbreaking new study that shows you can add years to your life by doing simple things that are much less demanding.

Being sedentary and inactive is more dangerous than obesity

To measure the links between physical inactivity, obesity, and premature death, the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, studied data on 334,161 older men and women—normal, overweight and obese—over an average span of 12 years.

Data included measures of:

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Waist circumference
  • Self-assessed amount of physical activity

Researchers also tested subjects for strength, endurance, agility, balance and flexibility.

These all tend to decline as we age—a process that’s readily slowed or halted by healthy living, including physical activity.

The study looked at how both quality of life and length of life were affected by all of these factors.

It was no surprise to find that 7,074 deaths in the study subjects were attributable to obesity. We all know that obesity increases your risk for diabetes, heart problems, and other complications.

It was quite a surprise, however, to discover that 14,049 deaths—twice as many—were attributed to lack of physical activity.

Wait—inactivity is worse for us than obesity?

Yes. But don’t start with the jumping jacks yet.

Why You Should Be “Moderately Inactive”

The real news here is the finding that just a “modest increase” in physical activity can have significant health benefits.

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Take, for example, the just under one-quarter (22.7%) of participants who assessed themselves as inactive, i.e., who reported no recreational activity and a sedentary lifestyle.

The report estimates that physical activity equivalent to just a 20 minute brisk walk each day—burning between 90 and 110 calories, if you’re counting—will move people from the “inactive” to the “moderately inactive” group—and reduce their risk of premature death by 16 to 30%.

The risk reduction was greatest among normal-weight individuals, but overweight and even obese individuals also saw positive health benefits.

So don’t just sit there.

Let’s break these findings down.

First: Twenty minutes is the new minimum recommended time for daily physical activity.

Second: It doesn’t have to be 20 minutes straight. The minutes can be scattered throughout the day.

Third: A “modest increase” in physical activity can be as simple as being less sedentary. Even just standing up from a sitting position can do the job. The study recommends nine breaks for every hour you spend sitting. That means you simply stand up every, say, seven minutes.

Compared to 30 minutes of “real” exercise every day, this just isn’t a big ask.

Do you talk with friends and family on a cordless phone? Instead of sitting around yakking, walk around yakking. Does your phone sit right next to your favorite chair? Move it so you have to get up and walk to it to answer. Watching TV? You don’t have to cut down on your tube time, but when the commercials come on, get up and walk. Or just stand until your show comes back on.

What Do You Get?

Research shows conclusively that when you’re physically inactive, you have, compared to your active neighbors, friends, and family:

  • A greater risk of heart attacks and strokes
  • Higher blood pressure—itself a major risk factor for heart disease
  • A higher risk of developing some cancers
  • A greater chance of developing diabetes
  • A higher risk of osteoporosis, and therefore, fractures—up to half of all hip fractures could be avoided with regular physical activity
  • More risk of being overweight or obese, which then increases the risk of other medical conditions
  • More injuries and accidents than physically active people

Given all of that, of course I want you to exercise, and the gold standard is still 30 minutes a day of “real” exercise that gets your muscles moving and your pulse up at least a little bit. (Remember too—pushing your body even that little bit releases your feel-good endorphins, my favorite happy hormones.)

But believe me, I know how hard it can be. Sometimes every bone in my body tells me to lay back, hit the snooze button, and grab another ten minutes.

That’s why I’m really pleased I can pass along the news that doing the right thing just got easier.

So don’t just sit there. Stand up for longer life. And walk your way to better health.

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