Health risks of prolonged sitting are reduced by exceeding weekly activity goals

Research has shown that people who sit for long periods or are considered to have sedentary jobs or lifestyles are at an increased risk of early death and several health issues. Fortunately, the results of a new study demonstrate that this risk can be offset by exceeding weekly recommended physical activity levels.

Man sat at desk

Image Credit: And-One/

Increasing physical activity can improve quality of life

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new global guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior. In a special edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the guidelines are discussed in conjunction with new data supporting the hypothesis that exceeding these guidelines is sufficient to counter these risks.

For many years, it has been understood that physical inactivity puts a heavy burden on human health. It is considered one of the leading risk factors of death and linked with as many as 5 million premature deaths annually.

Current global estimates suggest that over a quarter of adults and up to 81% of teenagers fail to meet the recommended levels of activity set out by the WHO. Studies have shown physical inactivity is associated with an increased risk of several diseases and health issues, such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, some cancers, osteoporosis, depression, and anxiety.

To protect the global population, particularly the next generation, from premature death and the health implications linked with inactivity, physical activity must be promoted and made a priority by global health agencies.

Physical activity effective at reducing health risks

New research, conducted by a team at the World Health Organization’s Department of Health Promotion, in Geneva, Switzerland, recruited more than 44,000 participants from four countries, who all wore activity trackers which allowed scientists to analyze the relationship between levels of physical activity and health risks.

The study’s results showed that, as expected, high levels of time spent sedentary were significantly related to an increased risk of death.

However, the study also highlighted the benefits of physical activity in offsetting the health risks posed by spending extended periods sitting. Around 30 to 40 minutes of daily physical activity deemed moderate to vigorous was effected at reducing these risks.

Currently, the scientists admit that there is not sufficient evidence available to set exact daily limits for time spent sedentary, however, the data strongly highlights the benefits of replacing sedentary activity with physical activity of any intensity when possible.

Researchers stress that all activity counts, from gardening and doing chores to running or riding a bike. Any kind of physical activity helps contribute to the WHO recommended levels of 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75-100 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, each week. Importantly, any level of physical activity is better than none, and people should be encouraged to make small changes to their daily lives to incorporate more movement.

The impact of raising activity levels worldwide could not only improve physical and mental health, it could also prevent premature deaths and boost the global economy by reducing sickness and enhancing productivity.

Physical inactivity in the time of COVID-19

The co-editor of the special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis, of the University of Sydney, states that “although the new guidelines reflect the best available science, there are still some gaps in our knowledge. We are still not clear, for example, where exactly the bar for 'too much sitting' is.

But this is a fast-paced field of research, and we will hopefully have answers in a few years' time,” highlighting the work still to be done in this field to help set more accurate guidelines, particularly for important, but often neglected groups.

Additionally, Stamatakis emphasizes the relevance of these findings in the time of the global pandemic, which has forced people into periods of inactivity which may be negatively their health, "these guidelines are very timely, given that we are in the middle of a global pandemic, which has conned people indoors for long periods and encouraged an increase in sedentary behavior”.

Better guidance may help people to protect themselves from increased time spent sedentary due to restrictions imposed due to the pandemic.

Journal references:
  • Bull FC, AlAnsari SS, Biddle S, et al. Br J Sports Med 2020;54:1451–1462.
  • Hafner M, Yerushalmi E, Stepanek M, et al. Br J Sports Med 2020;54:1482–1487
  • Stamatakis E, Bull FC, Putting physical activity in the ‘must-do’ list of the global agenda, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2020;54:1445-1446.
Sarah Moore

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Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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