How does a sedentary lifestyle impact your health?

General / Lifestyle choices

  7 Minutes

Living a sedentary lifestyle can be dangerous to your health. The human body was designed to move and it needs to move to maintain good health. Beyond that, your body’s functions were designed to work optimally when most of your time is spent standing up. This means that spending more time sitting or lying down than you spend active can have serious health implications.

According to a WHO study, around 40% of South Africans live a sedentary lifestyle, meaning that as a nation, we need to start paying attention to how much activity we fit into a day. The good news is that there is always time to change your inactive lifestyle to one that includes healthy movement.

In this article, we will take a look at defining a sedentary lifestyle, examine the problems associated with it and look at a few ways you can fit movement into your daily life.

What is a sedentary lifestyle?

There is a lot of complex information available about what exactly makes a lifestyle sedentary, but simply put, it is when there is a low energy expenditure due to spending a long time sitting or lying down each day. If you spend 4-6 hours a day not moving, the chances are you fit into the definition of a sedentary lifestyle.

It’s not just couch potatoes that can fall into the habit of being inactive. Office workers are also prone to being physically inactive as they often spend hours sitting at a desk working. A 2021 study found that 65% of South Africans with desk jobs spend more than 7 hours a day sitting. We also spend an average of 2.2 hours a day watching TV, and 12% of the population was found to spend 11 hours per week playing video games. That’s a lot of time spent inactive before we even factor in time spent commuting and sleeping.

How do you tell if your lifestyle is sedentary?

  1. Poor sleep patterns: When you spend too much time in a resting position during the day, your body won’t feel the need to properly rest and recharge at night, leading to poor sleep. If you don’t feel you ever get a good night’s sleep, getting active could be the key.
  2. Aches and pain: Spending hours at a time sitting, reclining or lying down is not what your body was designed for. If you find that you’re experiencing constant aches and pain, it’s a good sign that you need to move more.
  3. Weight gain: The less you move, the fewer calories you’re burning. If you notice the number on the scale slowly creeping up, and you spend more than 6 hours a day in a sedentary position, it’s a sign you need to make some lifestyle changes.

What are the health problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle?

  1. Obesity: Maintaining a healthy weight is a balancing act between calories in and calories out. When you don’t move, you don’t burn off enough energy. A sedentary lifestyle is often accompanied by a poor diet and higher consumption of energy-dense foods and drinks, which compounds the problem and can exacerbate oxidative stress and metabolic syndrome.
  2. Heart health: Exercise is vital to cardiovascular health. The heart is, after all, a muscle and like all other muscles, it needs exercise to stay in peak condition. Inactive people are at increased risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, such as elevated cholesterol.
  3. Cancer: A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to an increased risk of developing certain cancers such as lung, uterine and colon cancers.
  4. Digestion: Your body was designed to stand and move therefore, sitting for prolonged periods puts strain on the digestive system, causing it to be less efficient when digesting fats and sugars.
  5. Diabetes: Sedentary individuals have also been shown to be more prone to developing Type II Diabetes. Research has shown that spending five consecutive days of inactivity can lead to increased insulin resistance.
  6. Muscular and skeletal problems: Your muscles and skeleton are also strained when you spend too much time sitting or lying down. Your leg and gluteal muscles become weaker, making you less stable when walking, you get back and neck aches, and your hip flexors can even shorten. If you spend your days hunched over a desk with poor posture, you risk doing even more damage to your spine by compressing the discs unnaturally.
  7. Mental health: When you move, your brain releases serotonin, which is a mood-boosting chemical. That’s why we feel good after exercising. When you’re physically inactive, your brain doesn’t release as much serotonin, which can lead to a lack of motivation and has been linked to stress, anxiety and depression.

How to fix a sedentary lifestyle

How to fix a sedentary lifestyle:

If you are a healthy adult, you need to aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week to counteract the risks of physical inactivity. If you have been living a sedentary lifestyle for a prolonged amount of time, it is important to start your new exercise program slowly. If you are middle-aged or older, are at high risk for cardiovascular disease, or if you have any medical conditions, it is important to consult a doctor before you start exercising.

Here are some tips to help you move away from being sedentary, and towards good health:

  1. Set yourself up for success: Make sure you have comfortable clothing and the correct footwear for your chosen form of exercise. If you want to go for a walk in the morning, make sure everything you need is ready the night before to minimise your reasons to skip your workout.
  2. Set a realistic goal: Choose something challenging, but achievable to work towards. If you set your sights too high and fail to reach your goal, you can become demotivated and slip back into bad habits. A couch to 5k program is a great way to slowly build up the amount of exercise you do every day.
  3. Choose a form of exercise you enjoy: Any type of physical activity counts. If you don’t like running, choosing this as the way to break out of an inactive lifestyle will seem like a chore. Dancing in the lounge is a perfectly valid form of exercise, as is gardening, swimming or going for a walk with your friends.
  4. Take your breaks: If you work a desk job, there’s always the temptation to eat lunch at your desk while you finish a pressing task. Make a point of getting up during your breaks and walking around the office.
  5. Enlist friends and family: when you work out with someone who has similar exercise goals to you, it helps you stay motivated, makes it more fun and increases your chances of reaching your goals.
  6. Find opportunities in your everyday life to move more: Park further away from your office, take the stairs instead of the lift and stand up when you’re on the phone instead of sitting. Move your rubbish bin away from your desk so you have to get up to throw something away. Set a reminder on your phone to get up and move around every 30 minutes.

While the recommendation is to get 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, something is better than nothing, and those 30 minutes don’t all have to be in a row every day. If some days you can only manage two 15-minute dance breaks or three 10-minute walks on the spot while you take calls, that’s ok, it all adds up.

You should also aim to add some form of strengthening exercise at least twice a week – carrying shopping, lifting weights or digging in the garden are some ways to incorporate this.

Children need to move too.

It’s not just adults that fall prey to a sedentary lifestyle. Children who spend large amounts of time on gaming or other forms of screen time fall behind in cognitive development and motor skills, as well as set up with poor habits that will likely continue into adulthood

Children need to be active for at least 60 minutes every day and spend no more than 1-2 hours per day on non-productive sedentary activities, such as playing on a phone or computer. Encouraging healthy activities now can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

Living a sedentary lifestyle can lead to serious and chronic health complications, but making small, achievable and sustainable changes to your life can break the bad habits, instill new ones and safeguard your future health.

References and additional reading:

  1. Get active: Heart & Stroke Foundation: South Africa (2020) Heart & Stroke Foundation | South Africa. Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2024).
  2. Madwantsi, V. (2023) The average office worker in SA spends 70% of their days being sedentary, Independent Online. Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2024).
  3. Physical inactivity a leading cause of disease and disability, warns WHO (no date) World Health Organization. Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2024).
  4. What does sedentary behaviour do to children? (2022) FutureLearn. Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2024).
  5. Frazier, R.S. et al. (no date) Is your lifestyle too sedentary? here are 8 signs you’re not active enough, Real Simple. Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2024).
  6. Department of Health & Human Services (2016) The dangers of sitting: Why sitting is the new smoking, Better Health Channel. Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2024).
  7. Votel, K. (2024) Health risks of a sedentary lifestyle and how to make changes, HealthPartners Blog. Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2024).