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Health implications of a sedentary life?

Dear Alice,

What are the health implications of a sedentary life?

Dear Reader,  

Taking some time to kick back and relax certainly has its benefits, but limiting the time spent moving may increase the risk of some diseases. Instead of thinking about the risks of a sedentary lifestyle, it might be helpful to think about what’s gained by incorporating physical activity into the day. The current recommendations are to increase your heart rate enough to still hold a conversation, but not sing, at least 150 minutes per week. Before making any major shifts to your activity levels, it’s good to talk with a health care provider about the safest ways to do so.   

Daily physical activity — even moving for as little as 30 minutes each day — can greatly reduce the risk for many major medical concerns. It’s also good to incorporate a couple strength-building activities to your week, too! Regular physical activity can:   

  • Reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD) or having a stroke  
  • Lower both total blood cholesterol and triglycerides and increase high-density lipoproteins (HDL or the "good" cholesterol)  
  • Lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes  
  • Reduce the risk of developing some cancers, including breast and colon cancer  
  • Help people achieve or maintain a healthy body weight  
  • Reduce feelings of depression and anxiety  
  • Promote psychological well-being, restful sleep, and reduce feelings of stress  
  • Help build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints  
  • Help older adults become stronger and better able to move about without falling or becoming excessively fatigued  
  • Reduce the risk of early death from causes such as heart disease and cancer, thereby increasing the likelihood of a longer life  

Leading a sedentary life doesn't mean a person will develop all, any, or even most of these conditions; however, the risk of developing any of these conditions could be higher.  

Being active can take a lot of forms — whether it’s swimming, working up a sweat at the gym, doing some pushups and sit-ups, shadow boxing, walking around the neighborhood, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, parking a little farther away, or getting off at an earlier subway or bus stop. With so many options to be active, most folks can usually find something that they enjoy and can build into their week. For some general tips on getting started, you could visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and learn how to overcome some common barriers to getting active. The National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability also has a number of resources to help people with disabilities be more active. They provide a wide range of adaptive and inclusive activities based on people's needs. 

Making a change to spend some time getting your heart rate up can be a step toward a more healthy, fulfilling, and longer life. For those looking to add physical activity into their day-to-day routine, it’s a good idea to first talk with a health care provider for an overall assessment and recommendations about how to do so in a safe way. It’s also good to start slow, find an enjoyable activity, and devise a way to stick with it. In addition to getting a move on, adopting or maintaining other behaviors such as getting enough quality rest, finding ways to manage stress in healthy ways, and eating a variety of vitamins and minerals can really boost a person’s health and well-being. For more information on ways to incorporate these behaviors into your life, take a look at the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition and Physical Activity archives.  

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Last updated Sep 17, 2021
Originally published Feb 13, 2004