Vitality

Sedentary Lifestyles Pervade American Life — What's Everyone Doing With Their Time?

Sedentary behavior
Sedentary behavior includes sitting while watching TV, using a computer, or going to work. Vincent Diamante CC BY-SA 2.0

When it comes to living a sedentary lifestyle, that means there is little to no physical activity over the course of a person’s day. In 2014, 83 million people in the United States lived a more sedentary lifestyle than ever before. With all these people neglecting to get adequate amounts of physical activity, what are they spending their time doing instead? A new study from Iowa State University aimed to find out.

Published in the journal BMC Public Health, researchers wanted to find out how people in the U.S. spent their inactive time, which totals about 55 percent of their waking time, or about eight hours a day. So they brought together 1,442 people averaging middle-age from four different communities in Iowa.

For one random day, a subset of the participants was given an armband monitor to measure how active they were for the next 24 hours. Upon returning the armband, the subjects were asked to recall what they did the previous day in order to give the researchers a better idea of how they spent their time. This experiment was repeated three weeks later with a different set of subjects, and then every three weeks after with new participants until every participant had worn the armband and underwent the interview — the process took about two years.

Once everyone was accounted for and the data was analyzed, the researchers found participants had sat for an average of 7.7 hours a day, just under the national daily average. Men had spent more time being inactive than women. When it came to what they were doing, researchers found the most popular inactive activities were sitting while eating, watching TV, talking on the phone, and using a computer. Participants spent more than two hours a day on their computer or watching TV.

The researchers also split the sedentary behavior into five categories: work, community, indoor, outdoor, and transportation. Based on these, participants spent most of their sedentary time sitting at work (about 28 percent of their day). Community sitting — sitting at work, in church, at a restaurant, or at the movies — came in second, at 24.8 percent of their time, and sitting at home rounded out the top three at 20.5 percent.

When separated into more specific categories, the researchers found even more detailed data. For example, people older than 50 spent more of their day sitting than those who were under 30. People who earned more than $75,000 a year or had a higher education, meanwhile, sat the most.

A sedentary lifestyle is one reason more than a third of Americans are obese. Altogether, people who live sedentary lives, and become obese because of it, increase their risk for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. However, it’s never too late to get up and moving — and counter the effects of sedentary behavior. Walking between bouts of sitting, fidgeting, or having an “active office” — with standing, walking or biking desks — can all increase physical activity in minute ways. While physical activity guidelines recommend dedicating at least 150 minutes a week to moderate-intensity exercise (in addition to two days of strength training), even the smallest amount is better than nothing.  

Source: Youngwon, K, Welk, G. Characterizing the context of sedentary lifestyles in a representative sample of adults: a cross-sectional study from the physical activity measurement study project. BMC Public Health . 2015.

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