What constitutes sedentary behaviour?

Through evolution we can see that humans lived a hunter-gatherer existence, having to expend high levels of physical activity to locate food and water, build shelter and avoid predators. A sedentary lifestyle did not exist nor would one have survived should they attempted to follow such a lifestyle. With technological and agricultural advances over the years, the energy required to fulfil these survival needs has been dramatically reduced. Today we spend a significant amount of our time sitting and using labour-saving devices.


Sedentary behaviour is defined as “any waking activity characterized by an energy expenditure ≤ 1.5 metabolic equivalents and a sitting or reclining posture”. (for comparison, a Metabolic equivalent for a slow walk while bird watching is 2.5)

What negative impact does sedentary behaviour have on the body?

Research into sedentary behaviour is relatively new and more work needs to be done. The studies so far have shown that sedentary behaviour is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer as well as impacting your psychological health, e.g. anxiety, self-esteem and loneliness. In addition, while you are sitting at a computer or watching tv there is a higher chance that you will also be snacking on higher density foods which may lead to increased weight gain.


There is a growing body of evidence linking sedentary behaviour with chronic disease morbidity and mortality in adults. preliminary evidence suggests sedentary behaviour may also be a health risk in children and young people.


As you exercise the blood vessels widen enabling better blood flow, conversely while seated the blood vessels narrow limiting circulation.


Research into the physical and psychological health impact of sedentary behaviour is new and the Public Health guidelines say all age groups “should minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (sitting) for extended periods”.

Who does it affect?

It affects us all, some more than others. Statistics on the number of hours spent in sedentary behaviour for adults and children.

Adults England

  • Adults on average watched 2.8 hours of TV on weekdays and 3.2
    (men) and 3.0 (women) hours per day at the weekend.
  • Daily TV viewing time increased with age in both men and women from approximately 2.5 hours per day for those aged 16-24 up to almost 4 hours per day in those aged 75+ years.
Woman under 40 are more likely to be sedentary than men and from 60 men tend to be more sedentary than women. Sedentary behaviour increases with age increasing more from the age of 60 and tends to be higher in those families with lower income.

Children and young people England

  • Total daily sedentary time, assessed by accelerometer, increased with age from 6-7 hours per day at age 4-7 years to 8-9 hours per day at age 12-15.
  • In general, daily TV viewing increased with age.
  • 41% of boys and 13% of girls reported more than 2 hours of game playing (on a computer or games console) per day.
In children under 10 sedentary behaviour is the same in both boys & girls.
During adolescence, boys tend to spend more time in front of a screen than girls. Sedentary behaviour tends to increase with age and a sedentary child is likely to become a sedentary adult.


One thing people may not realise is that even those who currently meet recommended levels of physical activity may be susceptible to the adverse effects of prolonged bouts of sedentary behaviour. e.g Someone who runs or goes to the gym every morning may spend the rest of the day sitting in a car commuting to an office where they sit behind a desk all day and then go home to sit chatting or watching tv.

What can be done about it?

There are things you can do, firstly you need to be mindful of it. Secondly, you need to do something to change it. Here are some suggestions; (ensure one sedentary activity isn’t replaced with another)

Break the behaviour by:

  • Getting out of the chair regularly
  • Every hour or two go for a short walk
  • Take your next business phone call while standing and walkabout
  • Do something simple like walk to the water cooler
  • Change how you get to work, use it as part of your exercise regime. Walk to or ride your bike to the station or to work. Park on the far side of the work car park or the supermarket.
  • If you are a business owner take steps to minimise sedentary behaviours in employees, encourage regular breaks from sitting, possibly hold meetings standing up. If you are a teacher consider how you can reduce extended periods of sitting for pupils.
  • When looking for alternative activities for your sedentary children, involve the whole family. Evidence suggests family activities may be an effective method of reducing screen-based sedentary behaviours in children and young adolescents. Implement some parental rules, parental rules regarding TV and computer use are associated with lower levels of participation in these behaviours for young people. You might decide that after an hour of active play with siblings that the reward is some time on the computer.
  • Children follow the lead of role models, so set a good example yourself and become more active.
  • If you have small children limit the amount of time they are restrained in highchairs, pushchairs or car seats.
  • Remove the TV from the bedroom, those with more tv’s especially in the bedrooms tend to have higher sedentary behaviour.
  • Adults tend to spend time being sedentary without realising it. A friendly gathering to chat wouldn’t be considered an issue but it can still contribute to a sedentary lifestyle. Rather than inviting friends around to sit on the patio drinking wine mix it up a little and introduce outdoor games like outdoor bowling, ring toss or lawn twister – make it fun.

To close:

A sedentary lifestyle is a modern problem born out of the ease at which we can meet our physiological needs. As discussed, sedentary behaviour has wide-reaching implications on physical and mental health as well as quality of life. It is for these reasons that it has never been more important to search out new ways to stay active and keep moving. For many, lockdown has given us an opportunity to enjoy a variety of activities and re-discover hobbies that we would otherwise not have had the time to pursue. Let us now try and think about how we can maintain some of the good habits we have developed as lockdown starts to ease.


If you have any questions regarding the article or want to learn more about sedentary behaviour please don’t hesitate to contact me.

June Wilson