Sitting All Day Can Put You at Risk Of Health Issues—Even if You Exercise Daily

Researchers coin a new term "active couch potato" to describe individuals who exercise 30-minutes a day, but spend the vast majority of time sitting.

Colleagues working sitting at a desk working in a bright office.
Photo: Hernandez & Sorokina/Stocksy

Most experts agree that it's important for one's overall health to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. It's a goal that about 23% of Americans manage to accomplish. But if you sit for much of the remainder of your time, you may be what scientists are now calling an "active couch potato."

An expansive new study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that plenty of people who made the time to exercise also ended up spending a lot of the rest of the day sitting. These people—dubbed by researchers as active couch potatoes—were found to have elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, and body fat.

"There is plenty of evidence that exercise and more generally any form of physical activity is good for our health. This is undeniable," study co-author Sebastien Chastin, PhD, professor of health behavior dynamics at Glasgow Caledonian University, told Health. "But our society is becoming more sedentary at work, during leisure, or transportation. We spend more and more time sitting."

Here's what the new research says about the ramifications of being an active couch potato and tips for leading a healthier lifestyle.

What Does It Mean To Be an Active Couch Potato?

For the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 3,700 men and women in Finland. Among the study participants, researchers defined four types of people. Those who made the time to exercise but spent the rest of the day sitting were given the active couch potato title.

More specifically, researchers defined active couch potatoes as people who exercised for 30 minutes but then sat for 10 or more hours for the rest of the day. Overall, these individuals clocked less than 220 minutes a day of light movement, which includes such movements as getting up to go to the bathroom and walking to the kitchen to grab a snack.

Active couch potatoes, researchers noted, generally make a point of squeezing a workout into their day, but spend the bulk of their time sitting, Chastin explained. That could mean sitting in front of a computer for work, on the drive or ride home, and again at night when you watch TV.

"Although sufficiently active, Active couch potatoes had the highest daily sedentary time," says the study.

The other groups of people in the study were "sedentary light movers," "sedentary exercisers," and "movers"—all groups of people who generally engaged in more activity during the course of a day such as moving around or doing chores.

"Compared to Active couch potatoes, Sedentary light movers, Sedentary exercisers, and Movers spent less time in sedentary by performing more physical activity at light-intensity upward and had favorable differences in their cardiometabolic health markers," said the study.

The researchers analysis of all four types of people concluded that "after accounting for sleep duration and cardiorespiratory fitness, waking activity profiles characterized by performing more physical activity at light-intensity upward, resulting in less time spent in sedentary, were associated with better cardiometabolic health."

Health Conditions Linked to Active Couch Potato Lifestyle

While the study measured things like elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, and body fat, it didn't directly tie being an active couch potato to specific health conditions.

"The main risks are cardiovascular conditions for the general population," Chastin said, meaning such things as sheart attack, stroke, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

Research has also found a link between sitting for long periods of time and developing back pain, Chastin said.

"We still don't know much about why sitting may be bad for our health from a biological point of view," lead study author Vahid Farrahi, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Oulu, told Health. "What we know so far is that the balance between sitting and physical activity is important." Farrahi noted that a "large imbalance" between sitting and being physically active "seems to be related to poor cardiometabolic health."

In general, "the body loves movement," Ralph Gambardella, MD, sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, added. And, when you're not moving regularly, it's just not good for your overall health, Gambardella said.

"If you're sitting the rest of the day after you exercise, you're getting less flexible and your muscles are going to waste," Dr. Gambardella told Health. "You end up not getting the full benefit out of the exercise program that you've done."

How To Avoid Being an Active Couch Potato

If you may be in active couch potato territory for work-related or other reasons, there are some steps that can help counteract all the sitting.

"This does not mean that you can't sit," Farrahi said. "Rather, people should take every opportunity to move more."

Some of the options to consider include parking your car in the farthest empty spot away from your destination, taking the stairs rather than the elevator more often, getting up to do the dishes, and walking the longer way to the grocery store, he said.

"All of these simple strategies may help us increase our light physical activity and be less sedentary, which, according to results of this study, may be beneficial for adults' cardiometabolic health," Farrahi said.

If you're really stuck at an office—even a home office all day— Dr. Gambardella recommends doing your best to get up whenever possible, like taking advantage of coffee breaks and standing and walking around while you take calls.

Michael Tiso, MD, a sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, offered some additional suggestions for those stuck at a desk for much of the day.

"If you have the ability to get a standing desk, just standing vs. sitting can make a big difference," said Dr. Tiso

"Set an alarm to walk for five to 10 minutes every hour, even if it's just to the bathroom," Dr. Tiso added.

For those who like having specific goals to follow, Chastin previously discovered that doing about 2.5 minutes of exercise for every hour you sit—or seven to 14 minutes of light activity per hour of daily sitting—is helpful.

To help with this effort you might even consider investing in a smart watch that tracks your movement during the day and provides alerts when it's time to stand up.

After that, it's important to be honest with yourself about the results and take steps—literally—to make sure you avoid active couch potato territory. The big take-away message, though, is that many of us probably need to be moving more, even if you are already engaging in regular workouts.

Ultimately, Chastin said, "every movement counts."

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