“We seem busier than ever, but in a sedentary way.” —Sally Norton, UK-based consultant, bariatric surgeon and obesity expert
That’s the opening quote of a recently published study of the sedentary behaviour of over 26,000 citizens from all 28 European Union Member States. The study found that 18.5% of subjects spent more than 7.5 hours a day sitting.
What is sedentary behaviour?
Sedentary behaviours are those “that involve sitting or reclining positions and low levels of energy expenditure (less than or equal to 1.5 metabolic equivalents) during waking hours.”
Metabolic equivalents (METs) express the intensity of physical activity, and according to the World Health Organisation, “One MET is defined as the energy cost of sitting quietly and is equivalent to a caloric consumption of 1 kcal/kg/hour.”
Brisk walking, dancing and gardening typically require 3−6 METs, whereas running or fast cycling require over 6 METs, although the intensity of an individual’s physical activity depends on their fitness level.
The problem of sedentary behaviour
The report authors say that sedentary behaviour is a public health concern in Europe, and is associated with conditions such as depression, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Ultrarunner Dr. Andrew Murray, a sports medicine consultant at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, told Thrive Global that the Scots helped invent inactivity: “We created the three best friends of couch potatoes—the television, the telephone and the fridge—so Scotland should be at the vanguard of promoting exercise for health. Today most of us have sedentary jobs, and over a third of adults would benefit from walking more, or indeed any exercise.”
Murray says that as little as 150 minutes a week of any exercise, such as walking, adds seven years to life, and even five minutes of exercise gets the happy hormones going: “Humans are made to move, and without regular exercise, health suffers.”
The European study assessed a range of variables, including educational attainment; occupation; number of children in household; difficulties paying bills; life satisfaction; and physical activity.
The researchers noted that “highly educated adults with white-collar jobs, no difficulties paying bills and frequent internet use were most likely to sit too much, while retired or self-employed women living in Spain, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Malta and Slovenia, who were (re-) married and not very satisfied with their lives were least likely to engage in extended daily sitting.”
The study revealed that those participants who lived in large towns “consistently belonged to the subgroup with the highest percent of sedentary time,” and the association between white-collar workers and sitting too much was consistent across all 28 countries.
Breaking up sedentary behaviour
Calisthenics in the workplace may help to disrupt sedentary behaviour. For example, in a small UK study published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases, 20 healthy participants performed a “set order of squats, arm circles, calf raises, knees to elbows and lunges.” The study concluded: “Calisthenics led to a greater total energy expenditure and heart rate response compared to standing or walking interventions.”
Sophie Carter, lead author of the study and Ph.D. candidate at John Moore’s University, Liverpool, UK, told Thrive Global that prolonged sitting is adversely affecting our physical and mental health: “Researchers are trying to identify effective methods to reduce our sitting time. Treadmill desks, standing workstations and taking walking breaks have been suggested for the workplace, but these need expensive adaptations to the working environment and may be inconvenient.”
Calisthenics, says Carter, are a practical intervention that requires no equipment, and exercises can even be performed behind a desk: “We’ve shown that breaking up a sitting period with two minutes of calisthenics exercises expended more calories compared to completing walking or standing breaks,” she said. “In the long term, daily calisthenics activity breaks may help with weight management and even maintain or improve muscular strength, flexibility and balance.”
It’s time to stand up to sitting.