Can You Be Both Sedentary and Active?

By Grace DeRose-Wilson, Screening Integration Coordinator at Elder Law of Michigan

Did you know, even if you meet the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) physical activity guidelines you can still be considered sedentary? Physical Activity, Inactivity, and Sedentary Behaviors: Definitions and Implications in Occupational Health paints an alarming picture of how exercise does not make up for long periods of sedentary behavior. There is a lot of research on the effects of a sedentary lifestyle on health, some even claim Sitting Is The New Smoking.

A growing body of evidence shows sedentary behavior and inactivity, and not getting moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), are not equivalent. The Sedentary Behaviour Research Network (SBRN) defines sedentary behavior as any activity you perform while awake in a sitting, reclining, or lying position and expends 1.5 metabolic equivalents (MET) or less. Some examples of typical sedentary activities are riding in a vehicle, eating, bathing, and desk/computer work. The American Heart Association advises “evidence is accumulating that sedentary behavior might be associated with increased cardiovascular-specific and overall mortality.”

What I find alarming is recent research indicates exercise or MVPA does not make up for long periods of sedentary behavior. Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology reports “these data indicate that physical inactivity (e.g., sitting ~13.5 h/day and <4,000 steps/day) creates a condition whereby people become “resistant” to the metabolic improvements that are typically derived from an acute bout of aerobic exercise (i.e., exercise resistance).” The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates “American adults now spend an average of 11 to 12 hours a day sitting.” This estimate and the growing evidence on the negative effects of sedentary behavior highlight the importance of making a conscious effort to limit sedentary behavior whenever possible.

According to Sedentary Behavior Research Network if you are over 60 you are in the least active and most sedentary of all age groups. Healthy aging involves your muscles becoming stiffer and bones less dense, skin becoming thinner and more fragile, metabolism slowing down, vision and hearing becoming more limited, and possibly memory and thinking skills diminishing. These changes can make it more challenging for you to stay physically active, particularly if you do not live in a close community, like with or near family. As you age, you may become afraid to go out alone because you worry about falling or someone taking advantage of you. This is a common concern. In the U.S. there are not many accommodations to help you get out and stay physically active as you age. However, some countries like Japan have adjusted to help elderly individuals remain active and independent.

According to the World Economic Forum Japan has the oldest population in the world. AARP author T.R. Reid writes about some accommodations available in Japan to help you independently and safely navigate public spaces as you age. Post offices, banks, hotels, etc. have different strength reading glasses available for anyone to use. Escalators and elevators are modified to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs. Major crosswalks have a button for extra time in addition to the normal crosswalk button. Japan also prioritizes exercise through a three-minute-long radio calisthenics program that is broadcast four times a day and regularly attended by ten million Japanese citizens!

I think one of the most important things we can do for our health is limit sedentary behavior or substitute light activity for sedentary behavior as much as possible. I have never enjoyed gyms or organized workouts. However, I love being outside, going for walks, gardening, riding my bike. If you are trying to be more active, I think it is important to find activities that you enjoy. Making small changes to daily activities can make a big difference to your health.

  • Try mixing or beating ingredients by hand instead of using an electric mixer.
  • Sweep the floor rather than vacuum.
  • Rake leaves and shovel snow by hand instead of getting out the leaf or snowblower.
  • Try using the stairs instead of the elevator.

If you currently spend a significant part of your day sitting at a desk, watching TV, reading, or participating in other sedentary activities making small adjustments can make a huge impact on your health. Take some time to figure out small changes that will help incorporate more activity in your day. Maybe Japan’s radio calisthenics program is perfect to help you add movement to your day.

Grace DeRose-Wilson is a Screening Integration Coordinator for MiCAFE at Elder Law of Michigan and has been a member of the Elder Law of Michigan team since November 2018. As a Screening Integration Coordinator, Grace helps Michigan seniors navigate the benefits application process, and helps raise awareness of benefits through community outreach events.