The Impact of a Sedentary Lifestyle on Your Physical Health

The Impact of a Sedentary Lifestyle on Your Physical Health

The Impact of a Sedentary Lifestyle on Your Physical Health

If you are someone who exercises pretty often, you might not think the term “sedentary” applies to you. But…it actually might!

As it turns out, even if you exercise every day, even if you exercise for more than an hour every day, sitting for a long period of time still takes a toll on your health! If you, like me, work out in the morning and then think that you can sit around for hours with no negative repercussions, you (we) are wrong! Ugh!


Regardless of when, how long, and how intensely we work out, bad things happen in our bodies when we sit for prolonged periods of time. And, by “prolonged periods”, I do not mean multiple hours. I mean that bad things start happening when we are still for one hour!

Let’s take a look at what is happening inside our bodies when we are still so we can better understand why it happens and why it’s not good for us. Overall, our bodies are designed to minimize energy. This makes sense in terms of evolution, right? When we weren’t guaranteed a next meal, we definitely didn’t want to expend energy unnecessarily. So, when we are still for a period of time, our metabolism naturally goes down so we are not utilizing energy and not burning up the glucose (fuel for our muscles) from our last meal when we don’t need to. 

Sedentary Lifestyle and Obesity

But that’s not all that happens. As it turns out, this drop in metabolism also triggers a decline in the enzyme that breaks down the fat in our blood. This enzyme is called lipoprotein lipase (or LPL). LPL is one of the enzymes that breaks down the triglycerides (fats we get from food) so our muscles can use them as a source of energy. When we are not using our muscles for a while, the level of LPL drops and, if we have eaten recently and have glucose and triglycerides circulating in our bloodstream, they just stay there floating around. 

Why is this a problem? Well, when we have high levels of triglycerides circulating in our blood, they contribute to the hardening of our arteries and the thickening of our artery walls (this is known as arteriosclerosis). This hardening and thickening is not good. It increases the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease. As the level of triglycerides in the blood goes up, so does the risk to our health. Extremely high triglycerides (which can happen when we sit for hours eating fatty foods and sugar), can cause acute inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). This is definitely something we want to avoid. 

Cardiovascular Health Effects

As I mentioned before, the glucose (fuel) in our blood is also not getting cleared out when we are still for long periods of time. This can cause problems as well. Over time, this interferes with the body’s ability to metabolize glucose by creating insulin resistance which then increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease

If you’re like me, it is easy to get involved with reading a book, watching a TV show, or writing a blog (HA!) and have a couple of hours fly by. That’s where things get dangerous. Studies show that LPL levels drop after 60-90 minutes of being still - even if we are standing up. It’s the stillness, the underutilization of our skeletal muscles, that is the problem, and not necessarily the sitting. 

But, if you are someone who tends to sit a lot, there are some additional issues you should be on the lookout for. First off (and obviously) the muscle strength in our legs and particularly our glutes decreases when we don’t use our legs. This makes movement more difficult when we stand up, increases the risk of falls and raises the potential for injuries when we fall. Additionally, prolonged sitting shortens the hip flexor muscles which leads to problems with hip joints down the road.

Breaking Sedentary Habits for Better Health

The good news is that it’s super easy to counteract all of these detrimental impacts once we are aware of them. It really doesn’t take much - just two minutes of walking around or doing a few squats can kickstart the release of LPL, restart the clearing of glucose and triglycerides, strengthen the quads and stretch the hip flexors!

Improving Physical Fitness Habits

And, if you are someone who never sits still, someone who is constantly tapping your foot or shifting your position, you have a leg up on the rest of us! There have been some interesting findings regarding non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which is just a fancy way of describing any movement that is not considered exercise. Think fidgeting, vacuuming, walking into a store…really any movement that uses your skeletal muscles but does not increase your fitness level. Studies have shown that fidgeters, people who are constantly shaking their legs when they sit or pacing while on the phone (you know who you are!) tend to be thinner. They burn an extra 500-600 calories a day and they have fewer periods of time when their levels of LPL drop. This is because they are constantly engaging their skeletal muscles!

The big takeaway? Regardless of our fitness levels or the fact that we work out regularly, we all want to make sure we are moving our bodies a little bit at regular intervals throughout the day. 

Here are some easy ways to add some movement to your routine: 

  • Set an alarm for every 30-40 minutes. When it sounds, get up and walk around. Or do some jumping jacks or a few squats. 
  • When watching TV, get up and do a chore during each commercial break. Throw in a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher.
  • Schedule several 5-10 minute walks throughout the day. Getting outside is also good for your mental health and the added bonus is that your dogs will love it too!
  • Drink water one cup at a time so you need to walk to the kitchen for each refill.
  • Take the stairs between meetings.
  • Take a walk around the gas station when filling up your gas tank on long drives.
  • Invest in a pedal stepper to use when you need to sit for long periods of time.
  • Use a headset for calls so you can walk around while talking. 

Get creative! The goal here is to activate our large muscles so they signal the body to release LPL so the glucose and triglycerides (fats) can continuously be cleared from the blood. Your metabolism, heart and insulin receptors will appreciate it! Let’s get moving!