You’ve probably seen the “Sitting is Killing You” infographic, but maybe you didn’t actually believe that a sedentary life was as serious as the images made it appear. But it definitely, definitely is. According to a series of research papers in a special edition of The Lancet, investigating teams have found that, worldwide, inactivity may be as lethal as smoking cigarettes. But there are ways to fix it.
Part of a special examination of public activity, the papers–which are available online–explain why some people are active and others aren’t, how we can boost activity levels among all populations (including making the consequences of too much sitting seem more serious than most people see them), and the consequences of a truly sedentary lifestyle. They also include suggestions for those with disabilities.
But the most interesting and shocking findings presented are those that link a sedentary lifestyle–which means you spend most of your time sitting, rarely experience an elevated heart rate, and never actually exercise–to actual physical death.
According to one of the papers, as much as 30% of the world’s population (and well over 40% of the US’s) is entirely inactive, and about 1 in 10 deaths is due to diseases associated with a sedentary existence. Diseases like type 2 diabetes, certain kinds of cancers, and heart disease are all linked to sitting–and worldwide, they’re killing more people than cigarettes.
But there’s hope; according to the researchers, raising activity rates by just 25% could save as many as 1.3 million lives, worldwide. So how do we do it?
The short answer is: Information.
In America, most individuals only take about 5,117 steps per day, or just over two and a half miles, give or take. That’s about half the recommended number. Adding just 30-40 minutes of relatively rapid walking per day could get most individuals up into the “lightly active” range, which reduces many of the health risks associated with sitting–but most people don’t realize how little they actually walk. When asked, most sedentary people think they’re active. What they need is a device to tell them otherwise.
In one Harvard study, individuals who were just given pedometers (and no guidance or goals) walked, on average, about 2,000 steps more than they usually would. Compounded with information and recommendations from a doctor or trusted health source, and people are more likely to hit that 10,000 step goal.
A separate pedometer (which can be as inexpensive as $10) or fitness tracker (I love my FitBit) isn’t even always necessary–there are plenty of free and cheap smart phone apps that track steps, mileage, and goals. And for most people, just seeing how inactive they really are is enough to get them walking.
To many, a sedentary lifestyle doesn’t even register as a health risk–it’s just their life. But by raising awareness and motivating the masses to move more (government-issued pedometers? A free app by the CDC that tracks steps?), we could slice deaths due to inactivity. Going from truly sedentary isn’t that difficult, it’s just a matter of noticing that you barely move, and knowing that it’s got serious physical consequences.