How Sitting Can Be Detrimental to Your Health

Not only is a sedentary lifestyle associated with a greater risk for obesity, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, but recent research has shown that sitting still for as little as 30 minutes can have detrimental effects on the body.

Businessman working late in office
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What Is the “Sitting Disease”?

This is a label that has been given in the popular press to describe the harmful effects caused by sitting for too long. Research has shown that sitting for as little as 30 minutes at a time without standing up or otherwise engaging in physical activity may cause the beginning of a cascade of events throughout the body, a chain reaction that includes poor circulation, inflammation, and endothelial dysfunction (dysfunction of the lining of the blood vessels).

This translates, in the longer run, into higher rates of cardiovascular disease, overweight and obesity, and possibly even cancer.

More Sedentary, More Heart Disease

In a study that examined heart scans and physical activity records of more than 2,000 adults living in Dallas, researchers found that each hour spent in purely sedentary time per day was associated with a 14% increase in coronary artery calcification (calcium in the coronary arteries, which is a marker of atherosclerosis, also known as “hardening of the arteries” or arterial plaque).

More Television, Slower Walking Speed

In an interesting study of over 8,500 participants aged 48 to 92 who were enrolled in the European Prospective Investigation of Cancer-Norfolk study, researchers found that men and women who watched the least amount of TV (corresponding to sedentary time) had the fastest walking speeds, walking at a faster usual pace than those who watched the most TV. It appears that being sedentary for longer periods of time feeds into a vicious cycle, slowing you down and making you yet more sedentary.

Fighting the Sitting Disease

There are several ways to fight the sitting disease. If you have a desk job, you may be most at risk, so be sure to evaluate your work station and work environment. Everyone should look for ways to stay in motion throughout the day. Here are some ideas for doing so:

  • Stand up and stretch your legs every 20 minutes at the very least, even if it is just for a minute or so. Setting a timer can help.
  • Take calls standing up.
  • Walk around your office whenever you can—if not every 20 minutes, then at least every hour.
  • Always take the stairs.
  • Get or make a standing desk.
  • Consider holding walking meetings.
  • Get up during television commercials. Limit TV viewing to less than 7 hours per week.

In the United Kingdom, finding that British people sit for 8.9 hours each day on average, a unique and innovative campaign, known as Get Britain Standing, is underway to “grow awareness and education of the dangers of sedentary working (i.e., sitting more than 4 hours).” This campaign provides a variety of resources, including a “sitting calculator” that will help you estimate the time you spend sitting daily and correlate this with your “risk level.” They also provide a number of solutions for “Active Working."

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  • Keevil VL, Wijndaele K, Luben R, et al. Television viewing, walking speed, and grip strength in a prospective cohort study. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2015;47:735-42.
  • Kulinski JP, Khera A, Ayers CR, et al. Association between cardiorespiratory fitness and accelerometer-derived physical activity and sedentary time in the general population. Mayo Clin Proc 2014;89:1063-71.
  • Thosar SS, Bielko SL, Mather KJ, et al. Effect of prolonged sitting and breaks in sitting time on endothelial function. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2014 Aug 18. [Epub ahead of print]

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.