Want to add years to your life? Turn off your television and take a walk

October 9, 2023 Swedish Health Team

[5 min read]

In this article: 

  • Regular physical activity is essential to our overall health, including brain health. We are built to move. 
  • Prolonged sitting substantially increases the risk of disease and death from conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular events. 
  • A study found that no amount of exercise can reverse the increased mortality risks associated with sitting for more than three hours per day. 
  • A Swedish rehabilitation medicine expert explains, and shares tips for working physical activity into our everyday routines. 

If you sit less, it takes less exercise to stay healthy. And the more we move, the more likely we ar to add years to our lives. In fact, a 2016 study found that sitting for more than eight hours a day carried an increased mortality risk of 58%, similar to smoking and obesity. And recent, concerning data suggests that adults in the United States spend an average of 9.5 hours per day sitting and 11 hours per day using some sort of technology. While it's well understood that things like making time for exercise and eating a healthy diet are vital for good physical and mental health, regular physical activity and movement throughout the day to break the sedentary habit are also critical.

What's the difference between exercise and physical activity? Physical activity in daily life is any time not spent sitting and doing, at least, gentle movements; it can include household activities; taking the stairs; yard work, or a non-desk occupation. Whatever form it takes, regular physical activity matters, says Aliea Herbert, M.D., a cancer rehabilitation subspecialist who runs the Swedish Cancer Institute's After Cancer Treatment Increasing Vitality Through Exercise (ACTIVE) program.

“Exercise is a subset of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and has a final or intermediate objective of improving physical fitness,” says Dr. Herbert.

“When people sit too long, they become deconditioned, which affects all body systems, including the brain,” Dr. Herbert adds.

“People who have been sitting for hours without a break have a slower rate of blood circulation than people who move every 30 minutes — including the blood being pumped to our brains,” Herbert says. “When you’re sitting, the blood pools further down. When you move your muscles, it pumps blood back up toward your head.”

“We are built to move,” says Dr. Herbert. “From a biomechanical standpoint, we are not built for prolonged sitting. It tightens up certain tissues and disengages our deep core. We think that other cultures that sit on either a low surface of one that’s not 90 degrees actually have less back pain.”  

A 2012 British study followed the sitting habits of nearly 800,000 people. It found that those who sit the most have a greater risk of disease and death than those who sit the least, including a 112% increased risk of diabetes, a 147% increased risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke, and a 49% increased risk of death from any cause.

The link to cardiovascular disease was confirmed for older women by a 2019 study in the journal, Circulation. The study found that reducing sedentary time to an hour a day reduced the risk of heart disease by 26%.

Can’t I make up for sitting with exercise?

Not always. In most cases, 60 to 75 minutes a day of high to moderate intensity exercise eliminated the excess mortality risk associated with prolonged sitting. However, a 2016 study found that no amount of exercise could reverse the increased mortality associated with more than three hours of TV per day.

Frequent breaks are crucial to avoiding the considerable risks of prolonged sitting.

“To counter prolonged sedentary time, anytime you can work in a little bit of movement, you should,” says Dr. Herbert. “At work, walk to pick up something from a printer that’s across the floor, rather having one installed in your office. Walking and talking meetings are also an option. And standing desks are a really great way to get in movement, though they may not always be available.”

How often should I get up?

The Mayo Clinic has recommend standing and moving around once every 30 minutes. According to a 2022 article by the American Heart Association (AHA), researchers are still studying the ideal intervals for taking breaks from sitting. A 2023 study in the Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine highlighted the value of just five minutes of light walking for every 30 minutes spent sitting.

Broadly speaking people don’t have to get rid of their TVs, advises Dr. Herbert. “But they should break up their watching by doing light household chores like dishes or folding laundry, “ she adds.  

How can I become more active?  

You don’t have to run out and sign up for the gym, says Dr. Herbert. If you’re moving from a sedentary lifestyle to incorporating more movement, it’s crucial to take an incremental approach to getting in shape. Herbert recommends a walking routine for beginners. The practice may begin with walking only five minutes a day and increasing that by five minutes every week or two until one can walk for 30 to 45 minutes daily. Aquatic exercise is another option, especially for those with joint issues or a higher body mass index. A recumbent bike can be a good choice for those with lumbar problems.

The crucial factor is consistency and sustainability, advises Dr. Herbert.

“People who do something they enjoy are more likely to continue that activity. The most important thing is to meet people where they are,” she says. “Having a conversation to understand someone’s priorities and motivations could support them in building habits and routines that incorporate activity and exercise in a joyful way.”

Learn more and find a provider

To learn more about Cancer Rehabilitation Medicine at the Swedish Cancer Institute, visit our website or call 206-215-6333. 

If you have concerns about your health or it’s time for a check-up, it’s important to see a primary care provider. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. For urgent, walk-in or after-hours care, visit one of Swedish Urgent Care facilities. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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