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How to be less sedentary

profile picture of Amber Wilmhurst
Health Adviser at Bupa UK
26 May 2021

A sedentary lifestyle is when you spend too much time in a sitting or lying down position during your waking hours. This can be harmful to your health, so it’s important to think about your daily routine. Do you need to add a bit more activity into your day?

Here I’ll explain small ways you can move more to benefit your health.

What is sedentary behaviour?

Sedentary behaviour includes sitting down activities such as:

  • watching tv
  • reading
  • working at a computer
  • playing video games
  • travelling in a vehicle

How bad is a sedentary lifestyle?

Sitting for long amounts of time is harmful to your health, even if you do moderate to vigorous physical activity.

Research suggests that sedentary behaviours are associated with an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD). They are also linked to cancer and type 2 diabetes.

And in the shorter term, too much sitting may cause aches and pains, affect your digestion and increase tiredness.

What do the exercise guidelines say?

The current physical activity guidelines advise you to cut down on sedentary time where possible. And they recommend doing light physical activity to break up long amounts of time sitting down. However, there isn’t currently enough evidence to give a specific recommended time limit to being sedentary.

In terms of how much physical activity to do, in addition to breaking up sedentary time, guidance recommends:

  • two-and-a-half hours (150 minutes) a week for activities of moderate intensity
  • one-and-a-quarter hours (75 minutes) a week for activities of vigorous intensity
  • smaller amounts of activities of very vigorous intensity

Or a combination of all three. You should also aim to do some strengthening exercises at least twice a week.

So what is light physical activity?

We often know what moderate physical activity is – activities such as swimming, running, cycling – that get our heart rate up. But what about light activity? Examples of light activity include:

  • walking
  • dusting or polishing furniture
  • easy gardening
  • any daily activity where you are moving around

Evidence suggests that light activity has health benefits such as lowering the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer.

Is standing better than sitting?

There isn’t currently enough evidence to make a clear recommendation about whether standing can be included as an example of how to break up time sitting down. Though if you aren’t able to do light exercise, there is some evidence that standing up for a short time every hour is beneficial.

And for everyone, factoring in some standing time can act as a good prompt to do some stretches to prevent muscle aches and pains. It’s also a good way to break up the day by changing up your routine.

How can I be more active throughout the day?

It’s a good idea to make a plan. Taking frequent, short breaks is better than taking longer ones less often. Take some time to consider these questions and figure out what this will look like and what works best for you.

1. What motivates you?

Do you want to make this change? If so, why now? What is driving you?

For example, I want to reduce my lower back pain and build muscle. It will also help me to stay productive and focused while I’m working from home.

2. Create your combination of short breaks

Now that you have decided to take a step, take some time to brainstorm what activities interest and work for you. Are you keen on high-intensity-interval-training? Or dancing? Or freestyle – combining some of your favourite moves or stretches? Try to set yourself a 5 or 10-minute target to do some movement every hour or so.

For example, I will start by taking a brisk walk and incorporate two 5-minute dancing sessions in the day. I will take my daily team meeting at a standing desk position to break up my sitting time.

If you’re working from home, you could use an ironing board as a standing desk. Just make sure you have your equipment set up correctly.

3. Plan your movement into your schedule

Then once you have figured out what your 5 or 10-minute movement breaks are, it’s time to fit it into your schedule. Are there moments in the day that are better than others? Could your coffee breaks involve a dance in the kitchen?

For example, I will fit my walk in at lunch. I will do one of my two dancing routines mid-morning and the other one mid-afternoon. I will do some regular stretches throughout the day to keep myself moving more.

4. Planning for challenges

Life can get in the way of well-made plans, so it is important to think about challenges that may come up and how to work around them. Are there things that can help you to stick to your goal? Is your goal achievable? Are there alternatives you could do instead when you are busy?

For example, I will tell a couple of my close colleagues to see if they want to have walking phone call catch ups.

I will plan my sessions into my schedule each day to help me stick to them.

I will tell my family about my goal to help me stay motivated.

5. Check back in with yourself

Your goal may adapt over time, so it is useful to reflect on how your change is going. This could be a couple of weeks down the line, or in a month or two. It is alright to alter your goal based on how you’re feeling and what your outcome is.

For example, I have got a bit tired of the dance sessions after two weeks so I think I will change to a walk around the block or a bit of gardening. I work better having variety and not sticking to the same activity.


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profile picture of Amber Wilmhurst
Amber Wilmshurst
Health Adviser at Bupa UK

    • UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines. www.gov.uk, published 7 September 2019
    • Patterson R, McNamara E, Tainio M, et al. Sedentary behaviour and risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality, and incident type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose response meta-analysis. Eur J Epidemiol. 2018;33(9):811-829. doi:10.1007/s10654-018-0380-1
    • Eaglehouse YL, Koh WP, Wang R, Aizhen J, Yuan JM, Butler LM. Physical activity, sedentary time, and risk of colorectal cancer: the Singapore Chinese Health Study. Eur J Cancer Prev. 2017;26(6):469-475. doi:10.1097/CEJ.0000000000000369
    • Wilmot, E.G., Edwardson, C.L., Achana, F.A. et al. Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetologia 55, 2895–2905 (2012). doi:10.1007/s00125-012-2677-z
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    • Work routine and breaks. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 23 April 2021
    • Behaviour Change: Individual approaches. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, published 2 January 2014
    • Behaviour change: general approaches. www.nice.org.uk. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), published 24 October 2007
    • Medically reviewed by Dr Luke Powles, Clinical Director, Health Clinics at Bupa

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