How to Fix a Sedentary Lifestyle

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Modern advances make our lives easier, but they've led many of us to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. Moving less and sitting more is linked to a number of health conditions and is believed to be a major cause of the obesity epidemic.

Research published in 2010 found inactivity and sitting for longer than four hours per day greatly increases your risk for cardiovascular disease (perhaps even more than smoking), diabetes, and a number of other obesity-related conditions.

Two adults with two children walking on a path

Mayur Kakade / Getty Images

Fixing a sedentary lifestyle takes some conscious effort at first, but the value of being more physically active is worth it for the myriad benefits it brings.

Whether you're stuck at a desk all day or just struggling to get motivated and exercise, here are 11 ideas to help you get moving.

Walk More

Plenty of research has borne out the health benefits of a daily 30-minute walk.

During its 26-year follow-up, the Nurses’ Health Study found people who walked briskly or otherwise achieved moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes every day had a lower risk of sudden cardiac death.

A study published in 2015 found as little as three five-minute walks throughout the workday can reverse the harm prolonged sitting causes to peripheral arteries in the legs.

It's easy to start walking more, even if you're at the office. Suggest walking meetings instead of sitting around a conference table. You can also try adding activity before or after work, such as walking your dog for longer stretches.

Look for other opportunities to take a walk. For example, if you live close by, walk your kids to or home from school, or at least as far as the bus stop. You can also take a walk after dinner and make it a family event.

Even if your family's schedule doesn't permit sharing dinner together, try taking a stroll through the neighborhood when everyone gets home. Not only will you all get moving, but you'll get to spend quality time together.

Take the Stairs

A study published in 2017 found stair climbing, which is considered a vigorous-intensity physical activity, burns more calories per minute than jogging.

Taking the stairs whenever possible can help you to maintain a healthy weight as well as build and maintain strong bones, joints, and muscles.

Walk the Parking Lot

As long as you can do so safely, parking your car at the far end of the parking lot or down the street from your destination is an easy way to add extra steps to your day.

In the same vein as taking the stairs instead of the elevator if you're able, if you have the time and are physically able to walk a little farther, you'll get the benefits of additional activity.

Plus, walking across the parking lot or around the block from your office also gives you a moment outside to soak up the sun or enjoy the change of seasons, which can be great for your mental health as well.

Ditch Your Car

How we travel in the modern age is associated with rates of overweight and obesity. Compared to more passive ways of getting around, the active modes, such as walking or cycling, have many health benefits and greater potential to prevent obesity.

Even public transit appears associated with lower body mass index (BMI) compared to driving your own car to work. Standing on a subway platform or walking to a bus stop requires more steps than just going from your front door to your garage.

BMI is a dated, flawed measure. It does not take into account factors such as body composition, ethnicity, sex, race, and age. 
Even though it is a biased measure, BMI is still widely used in the medical community because it’s an inexpensive and quick way to analyze a person’s potential health status and outcomes.

However, if you live in a city where you have to park in a city lot or several blocks away from where you live, you may be able to get in those added steps even if you do take your own car.

At Work

If you've got a physically demanding job, you may not need to add activity to your workday. For those who sit at desks all day, though, incorporating more movement can be an important lifestyle change.

Stand Up

If your job requires you to sit for long periods, make it a point to stand up at least every 20 minutes. You may need to set a reminder using your calendar or phone, especially if you're used to getting involved with a project and losing track of time.

If you're worried about interrupting your workflow, you don't necessarily have to stop your task to take a quick standing or stretching break. You can easily take calls or review printed files standing up.

Try taking brief breaks away from your desk to get some water or confer with a colleague at their desk rather than sending an email.

Change Your Workstation

You might also consider getting a standing desk, a treadmill desk, or a fitness ball seat (which promotes "active sitting," in which you engage your core).

If you have a workstation that can be adjusted to various heights, you can even do some of your daily computer work standing up.

Standing workstations may even improve your posture, reduce back pain, and when arranged properly, can be a better ergonomic fit. Some companies employ workspace-ergonomics specialists who can evaluate your workstation and help you get set up.

At Home

If you're tempted to crash after a long day of work, keep moving and try to motivate yourself to continue being active after you get home.

Do Your Chores

Instead of moving from table to couch, clean your kitchen after dinner. It's easy to forget that tasks like doing the dishes and wiping down counter tops do count as standing activities in your day.

Other chores like taking out the garbage, sweeping the floors, and vacuuming are even more physically active.

A bonus is that you'll get housework done during the week, which frees up your days off for more fun activities.

Other After-Dinner Activity

Planning activity after dinner not only boosts your fitness, it helps keep your blood sugar levels in the optimal range and reduces your risk of developing insulin resistance.

Even if you're eating out and won't have to do the cleaning up, it doesn't mean you have to miss out on a chance to get moving. Suggest continuing the mealtime conversation with dinner companions by taking a short walk.

Use Commercial Breaks

Watching your favorite television show or having a movie night at home with your family doesn't have to be a prolonged sedentary activity.

You can use commercial breaks as a chance to move around. Need to refill the popcorn bowl? Pause the movie and give everyone a chance to stretch while you replenish snacks.

You can even make a game of it. See who can do the most pushups or situps during a commercial break. Or, if you still have chores to take care of, multitask. Folding laundry is one physical activity you can easily do while watching a movie.

Intentionally breaking up any kind of screen time, whether it be television, computer, tablet, or phone, will help reduce the amount of time you spend sedentary each day.

Develop Active Hobbies

Finding enjoyable pastimes that keep you moving is a great way to add activity to your life.

Go for a Run

If the thought of going for a run intimidates you, remember that you don’t have to run a marathon to enjoy the benefits of running.

A 2014 study found even going for a slow (less than 6 miles per hour), 5-10 minute run each day was associated with significantly reduced risk for death from all causes, but specifically from cardiovascular disease.

There are several options for running as well. Experiment and find which you prefer. You might find you like running outdoors on trails or through your neighborhood best, or maybe you'll like running on an indoor track or treadmill better.

Running can also be a social event if you want it to be. While many people prefer to run solo, you can also join a running group.

Plant a Garden

Any gardener will tell you just how much physical effort is involved in every kind of gardening activity. Gardening is not only mentally and spiritually stimulating but many people find it to be an enjoyable way to stay active.

The American Heart Association considers general gardening to be in the category of moderate-intensity physical activity.

You can get started with a garden in your own backyard if you have space, but if not, there are other ways to get your hands dirty.

If you don't have a yard of your own, volunteer to help out at a local community garden. Many cities, school districts, and nature centers rely on green-thumbed volunteers for planting and maintenance.

Try a Fitness Tracker

A pedometer is a great way to track your steps, which can help you gauge your activity throughout the day.

Knowing how active you really are can alert you to patterns or habits that lean toward an overly sedentary lifestyle. You can take action to combat the effects of sitting too much by finding opportunities to move more.

Sophisticated fitness trackers do more than tell you how many steps you're taking—you can use them to track calories in and calories out, your day-to-day activity level, and set goals. Some even track your heart rate and sleep.

Even if a wearable fitness tracker isn't your preference or within your budget, many smartphone apps provide similar functions. Many options are free and may track your activity passively, so you won't have to remember to log your activity.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the short-term consequences of a sedentary lifestyle?

    Being inactive during the day can increase feelings of depression or anxiety. It can also affect the way the body processes fats and sugars in the diet, and lead to some weight gain if you aren't burning enough calories.

  • What percentage of U.S. adults lives a sedentary lifestyle?

    According to a CDC report, in all U.S. states and territories, more than 15% of adults were physically inactive. Inactivity was defined as not participating in any physical activities in the last month, including walking for exercise or gardening.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Chiuve SE, Fung TT, Rexrode KM, et al. Adherence to a low-risk, healthy lifestyle and risk of sudden cardiac death among women. JAMA. 2011;306(1):62-9. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.907

  3. Thosar SS, Bielko SL, Mather KJ, Johnston JD, Wallace JP. Effect of prolonged sitting and breaks in sitting time on endothelial function. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015;47(4):843-9. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000479

  4. Allison MK, Baglole JH, Martin BJ, Macinnis MJ, Gurd BJ, Gibala MJ. Brief Intense Stair Climbing Improves Cardiorespiratory Fitness. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2017;49(2):298-307. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001188

  5. Flint E, Cummins S, Sacker A. Associations between active commuting, body fat, and body mass index: population based, cross sectional study in the United Kingdom. BMJ. 2014;349:g4887. doi:10.1136/bmj.g4887

  6. Lee DC, Pate RR, Lavie CJ, Sui X, Church TS, Blair SN. Leisure-time running reduces all-cause and cardiovascular mortality risk. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;64(5):472-81. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2014.04.058

  7. MedlinePlus. Health risks of an inactive lifestyle.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC maps America's high levels of inactivity.

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI
Yasmine Ali, MD, is board-certified in cardiology. She is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an award-winning physician writer.