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Prolonged Sedentary, A New Threat To Our Health

Prolonged Sedentary, A New Threat To Our Health

, by Joris Lans, 6 min reading time

Sedentary behavior 

Lack of exercise being a serious threat to our health has been known for quite some time now. Relatively unknown is the risk of sitting for prolonged periods of time (a sedentary lifestyle) to our health, irrespective of one getting sufficient physical exercise. Our job's are the main culprit. Most of us spend our working lives sitting on a chair all day, typing away on a desktop or laptop. In this regard we can speak of a new form of occupational hazard.

We speak of sedentary behavior when activities are being carried out that require little to no energy (≤1,5 MET), while one is sitting or lying down but not asleep.

Sedentary behavior isn't the same as a lack of physical exercise, but rather a different kind of behavior bringing its own risks to our health. Unfortunately sedentary behavior is very common in both the netherlands and countries all over the world. Recent data provided by the Dutch 'TNO-monitor Exercise and Health' shows that in the past couple of years, there's been a slight increase in time Dutch people spend sitting down (or lying down but not asleep), except for people over seventy-five years old.

Health risks

Scientific research shows sitting for prolonged periods of time increases the risk of untimely death. What we have here is called a dose-response relationship, meaning those who spend most of their time with prolonged sedentary are most at risk of an untimely death. People spending over 11 hours a day sedentary, increase their risk for untimely death by 40% within the next three years. This is not the case for people who only spend 4 hours sedentary. There are also indications that show prolonged sedentary increases the risk of disease. It makes no difference whether one is getting sufficient exercise.


There's little to no evidence of the relationship between prolonged sedentary and disease since there's little research on this subject and its quality is questionable at best. A recently done meta-analysis shows sitting for prolonged periods of time can be associated with an increased risk of diabetes type 2 and cardiovascular disease. Prolonged sedentary is related to an increase in the risk of developing diabetes type 2 by no less than 112% and an increased risk of cardiovasculair disease by 147%. These numbers are shocking to say the least. There's also evidence of a relationship between prolonged sedentary and depression and prolonged sedentary and the risk of developing various types of cancer. There's too little evidence yet of a relationship between prolonged sedentary and obesity. What we do know is that prolonged sedentary can form a risk to to our musculoskeletal system.

Possible explanations

Research into the physiological mechanisms to explain the relationship between prolonged sedentary and health risks are still in its infancy. It's being suggested sitting for prolonged periods of time has a direct influence on metabolism, absorption of calcium and vascular health. Not only our energetic level rises while standing. Standing also aids us in preventing weight gain and activates our postural muscles, especially the quads. Sitting down there isn't any activity of the postural muscles at all. This causes disruptions in the metabolism which in turn could lead to significant health risks. It has been proven time and again alternating between sitting, standing and exercising is required to reduce health risks caused by prolonged sedentary.

What do experts believe is the right amount of sequential seating periods? 

People in the Netherlands and other countries around the world are strongly advised to limit prolonged sedentary as much as they can. There isn't however one specific international guideline about this as of yet. This is probably going to change in the foreseeable future, due to the increased number of studies into the subject and the growing number of evidence of the risks of prolonged sedentary to people's health. It's highly likely in future guidelines people will be advised to limit their sedentary behavior as much as possible and alternate between sitting, standing and exercising, whether it be long or short.

Stuck in your chair at work

More and more we are condemned to sedentary work at a desk for hours on end. In this regard our jobs have become our villain and abstain us from getting our daily required exercise. In the Netherlands alone a total of over 3.4 million employees spend more than 4 hours a day working sedentary at a desk. The Dutch labor force spends an average of 7 hours on sedentary work at a desk. Within the automation and Business Services sector, transportation industry, banking and assurance, government and judicial power, employees spend an average between 7,9 and 9 hours a day on sedentary work.

It is to be expected a growing number of employees is facing more and more sedentary work due to expended automation and computerization within various industries. Innovative Dutch developments as 'The New Way of Working' are likely to add to this trend, because working from home gets ever more popular. Because of this there'll be less commuting and more sedentary work, causing people to get less exercise on a daily basis.

Limiting sedentary work 

Employers can have a crucial part in limiting sedentary work as much as possible. First and foremost they are compelled by law to reduce occupational hazard to a minimum. Second they have a mutual interest to reduce work-related health risks where the employability of personnel is concerned. It's widely known that if sedentary work and lack of exercise go hand in hand, there's a huge risk of sick-leave and slow recovery among employees. Acting in anticipation and taking control of the situation can therefore also be financially beneficial to employers. The best part is that there are easy ways to reduce sedentary work without the risk of losses in productivity, great expenses or safety concerns. It can be as simple as standing up or walking around. Another way to reduce sedentary work is using a height-adjustable standing desk. Alternating between sitting and standing at work is not that easy at first, so employees really have to make an effort to master it. But in the end it will greatly benefit their health.

In conclusion

- There's strong evidence prolonged sedentary is related to an increased risk of untimely death
- There are strong indications that prolonged sedentary causes an increased risk of various diseases such as diabetes, cardiovasculair disease, depression, cancer and issues with the musculoskeletal system
- These health risks won't disappear with sufficient exercise. If you have a sedentary life you're at risk.
- Sedentary work causes health risks and can be seen nowadays as an occupational hazard
- The health risks can be diminished by reducing sedentary behavior and sedentary work.


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