Jennifer Rothman
Jennifer Rothman
Jennifer Rothman

Jennifer Rothman is a copywriter and columnist, specializing in delivering informative content you can trust.

Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Can You Out-Exercise Your Sedentary Lifestyle?

For many individuals, their occupation involves sitting 40 hours or more per week at their desk. This means that the average person is becoming a sedentary person.

But can’t you just exercise to balance it out? And is it really that bad?

A sedentary person increases their risk of various chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and more. Ultimately, it could reduce your lifespan and quality of life. And unfortunately, it isn’t possible to simply fix it by trading hours of sitting for exercise. It comes down to countering the negative effects by altering your entire lifestyle.

You have to proactively find areas where you can improve and then improve them. Health isn’t about just fixing one entity – it involves various aspects. So, let’s take a closer look and answer most common questions regarding sedentary behavior and how you can improve yours.

Q: What exactly counts as a sedentary lifestyle? Is it possible to be considered inactive while participating in typical activities like going to the grocery store? 
A: You may lead a sedentary lifestyle – without even realizing it. It’s really easy to not move enough during your day. In fact, technology has made it that much easier. You can control almost everything via remote control or by using your phone. These items make it easy to barely move – almost too easy.

A sedentary lifestyle by definition means only performing light activities associated with daily living activities. Sedentary exercise examples include walking to and from your car or moving to make dinner in the evening. But that’s it. Essentially, it involves no intentional movement.

Back in the day, people used to walk to work. They also had more labor-intensive jobs. Today, some individuals bike to work, which is great. But most people tend to take public transportation or they drive to work. It might fool you into thinking you’re putting a lot of physical effort into your day. In truth, it does require a ton of mental energy to commute through rush hour traffic both ways. And you might pour a lot of mental energy into your work. Yet, mental energy isn’t the same as physically moving.

Or perhaps you spend your day hustling at work. You’re moving papers or you’re working on multiple screens. Your hands and mind are moving a mile a minute. But here’s the catch: your body isn’t.

Here is a quick game. Let’s drive that message home and make you become aware of your potential sedentary behaviors. Which of these individuals is more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle?

There’s Betty. She’s a stay-at-home mom. She lives for her kids and does most of the domestic work at home. 

Then, there’s John. He’s a rowdy teenager. He’s really into Sci-fi and video games. If he had a choice, he’d spend all of his time in front of his computer monitor or hanging out with his friends at the skatepark.

Lastly, there’s Bob. Bob works for a giant tech company. He’s one of many technicians within the company. He has the typical 9-5 job and spends his weekends with his family or watching football. 

If you guessed Bob – you’re right. Despite having probably a lot of free-time, Bob doesn’t take a proactive role with his health. He commutes and drives to work. He feels tired from his commute, so he skips out on the gym most of the time. He also spends most of his days in front of a desk answering technical computer support calls and fixing them on the spot. During his free-time, he also participates in sedentary hobbies, like watching football. So, although Bob seems like the man that’s potentially got it together, he leads the most sedentary lifestyle.

In fact, he might be more prone to it than anyone else. Betty runs around all day after her kids and keeps active. John walks to and from school. He also participates in gym class and goes to the skatepark most weekends with his friends.

Bob has the easiest life in terms of physical activity. He also doesn’t have anything at stake – except for his health.

Q: Usually I’m swamped with work and taking a walk is the last thing I would think about. Anyway, I go to the gym 4 times a week, isn’t that enough?

A: The simple answer? No.

The metabolic consequences of prolonged sitting are adverse, even among those considered to be sufficiently physically active. In other words, you could hit the gym 4 times a week, but still not be moving enough.

Why is this? You’ve been sitting all day long. You’ve barely moved. One hour out of 24 hours isn’t going to even out the consequences of sitting.

It’s called the active couch potato phenomenon. This means that even though you might be meeting the physical activity guidelines, the harm caused by sedentary behavior doesn’t change. This might even give reason as to why so many people struggle to lose weight – even though they’re going hard at the gym.

The problem is that movement is necessary throughout your day. Ultimately, your body needs breaks from sitting. Long periods of sitting without movement cause adverse health effects, such as:

  • Blood pooling: This can cause swelling or edema in the hands, ankles, or feet.
  • Joint stiffness: This may happen due to a lack of movement which prevents movement of the synovial fluid in the joint, as well as blood flow. This fluid lubricates the joint, making it easy to move. Blood flow also helps the muscles function and activate properly.
  • Heart effects: Like any muscle, the heart needs movement to stay healthy. Without exercise throughout your day, your heart rate may fluctuate. It also decreases the overall health of the heart.
  • Lung effects: Movement usually helps with oxygen exchange in the lungs. Without it, you don’t get these effects and the system becomes less efficient. Further, bad posture caused by sitting all day may create breathing problems.
  • Metabolic impact: Metabolic activity and hormone interactions rely on movement of the body. A lot of these processes can go haywire without exercise spaced throughout your day.

So, those short walks or stretch breaks matter way more than you think. They prevent long-term sitting and the adverse effects that come with.

Q: Ok, then how much exercise do I need if I sit all day long?

A: Going to the gym is good. Keep doing your recreational sports or regular gym sessions. But when it comes down to it, even 7 days per week are not enough. This isn’t to discourage you! It’s to help you change your health for the better and know how to improve it.

Ideally, you want to integrate physical activity into your everyday routines. For instance, instead of driving 5 minutes to the store, do that 20 minute walk. Or start biking to and from work each day. Take the stairs when the opportunity is there as opposed to the elevator or escalator. Set a timer at work for small stretch or walk breaks every hour or two.

And unfortunately, you can’t count light activities throughout your day as movement. Sedentary behavior, again, is categorized as activities that require little or no movement. This involves sitting, lounging on the couch, and driving. And you might be engaged in other activities, such as gaming, entertainment, and socializing. But your body isn’t getting the movement it needs, unless you move it.

Alright, so how can you determine if you’re getting enough physical activity? Start counting how many times a day you get up from your desk versus how long you sat at your desk or on your couch. In an ideal world, this would be at least once every hour.

You can also add up how long you walked for throughout your day. You can manually tally this up. Yet, many devices do this, like the fitbit. In fact, a lot of fitness devices come with reminders to tell you to move or complete so many steps every hour of the day. They’ll buzz on your wrist and let you know that you need to move. Often, this simply requires a quick walk down the hall or a bit of movement at your desk. It doesn’t have to be anything hard or strenuous. You can save that for the gym.

Q: I’m expected to sit all day long at work. What can I do with it? 

A: There are so many options. It just comes down to becoming more aware of them. Realistically, sitting shouldn’t be passive as it is. Straighten up! Keep a tall posture, do light exercising while sitting, switch your position from sitting to standing, change working points if possible.

You can also stretch it out at your desk. Stand for a moment or two and perform a few stretches. Good ones to counteract the effects of sitting include hamstring stretches, hip flexor stretches, back stretches, and calf stretches. As aforementioned, mini-breaks shouldn’t get you in much trouble at work.

You can also add in other aspects of physical activity throughout your day as mentioned above. Take the stairs, go explore new places at lunch, initiate a walking meeting with your colleagues.

Moreover, consider doing your job in a standing position.

Q: Wait, standing also doesn’t involve much movement. So what’s the point?

A: Standing is better than sitting. Surprisingly, research indicates that blood sugar levels return to normal faster after a meal when a person has spent more time standing than sitting. It’s also thought to counteract the negative effects that come with sitting, such as blood pooling, joint stiffness, and bad posture.

Further, you’re more likely to change your position and move when standing. Your body also uses different muscles to support standing, whereas sitting uses barely any muscle activation, particularly in the lower body.

In fact, sitting can lead to tight muscles and joints contributing to lower back pain. When you sit for long durations, your hamstrings and hip flexors shorten. These pull on the pelvis, which attaches to the spine and connects to an array of other muscles and tissues. Consequently, this can create some imbalances. As a result, you may experience increased pain in the lower back.

Sitting also contributes to a weakened core, especially if posture is ignored. Yet, standing forces you to use your core to remain upright and straight. Standing also activates and elongates muscles that are otherwise shortened and tightened in sitting positions.

Find Ways to Create a More Active Lifestyle!
Changing your overall lifestyle is essential to maintaining optimal health and function. Don’t become another sedentary person or an active couch potato. Take it upon yourself to find more opportunities to move in your everyday life. Unfortunately, you can’t out-exercise a sedentary lifestyle. And the gym won’t entirely cut it if you’re sitting all day long, 5 days a week. Aim to improve your health and happiness by moving more and doing a total lifestyle overhaul. It’s entirely possible – even if you do technically need to sit every day for your job.

If you’re going to stand at your desk…

Keep in mind that using a standing desk is like any other “intervention” — it can come with “side effects.” For example, if you suddenly go from sitting all day to standing all day, you run the risk of developing back, leg, or foot pain; it’s better to ease into it by starting with 30 to 60 minutes a day and gradually increasing it. Setting a timer to remind you when to stand or sit (as many experts recommend) can disrupt your concentration, reduce your focus, and reduce your efficiency or creativity. You may want to experiment with different time intervals to find the one that works best for you.

It’s also true that certain tasks — especially those requiring fine motor skills — are more accurately performed while seated. So, a standing desk may not be a good answer for everyone who sits a lot at work.