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Sitting too much can wreak havoc on your health — and your heart health isn't the only thing at risk. What does a sedentary lifestyle do to your bones and joints, and what can you do to decrease your risk of complications right now?

Imagine a condition that the World Health Organization estimates to cost over two million lives a year across the globe, and one that doubles your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. This same condition makes you vulnerable to complications as varied as high blood pressure, colon cancer, osteoporosis (brittle bones), low back pain, depression, and anxiety. 

If we were to share that 60 to 85 percent of the world population — easily the majority — suffers from this "condition", you'd probably be shocked. It gets worse, though. We're talking about a sedentary lifestyle, or a life of physical inactivity, and although the COVID-19 pandemic has made it slightly harder, this highly prevalent public health problem is also one nearly everyone who suffers from it could fairly easily take steps to combat. 

As part of Bone and Joint Action Week, an campaign that calls attention to disorders impacting bone and joint health, we'd like to show you how prolonged physical inactivity can harm your bones and joints — and what you can immediately start doing if you, too, are leading a sedentary lifestyle. 

Definition: What exactly is a sedentary lifestyle?

Tricky question. Whether you want to use the term "sedentary lifestyle", or you prefer other terms like "physical inactivity" or simply "doesn't move enough" you'll definitely have a broad idea of what it means. No consensus exists on a single exact definition, however, and there are several reasons for that. 

The key points you should be aware of if you're asking yourself if you may be physically inactive enough to be placing your health at risk include:

  • "Physical activity" is any movement you may with your body that leads you to expend energy and calories — not only activities that would be considered "exercise" are included. Walking to the post box to get your mail, taking the dog around the block, or cleaning your house vigorously would all definitely count as physical activity.
  • Someone leading a sedentary lifestyle might be moving around less than recommended. Everyone is recommended to get in at least 30 minutes of  moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity five days a week, or 20 minutes of intense activity three days a week. Meeting the physical activity recommendations for adults could, for instance, include brisk walks, some swimming, raking the lawn, biking to work, or doing some strength training at the gym.
  • However, research has found that people who do get those 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week, but who still spend 70 percent or more of their time being sedentary — while engaging in work exactly of the type I'm doing in writing this article, for instance — still have increased health risks. 

In an informal context, I think we can safely say that anyone who spends the largest portion of their day moving very little and who isn't intentional about doing any exercise could use this opportunity to see how they can move more. 

I'll use myself as a little case study. Before COVID-19, I went swimming all the time and walked everywhere. Since the pandemic, I've spent most of my time at home. I occasionally take late-night walks for exercise and recreation and go to the shop every once in a while. Oh, I also take the trash out. At home, I clean and I follow along with online exercise videos when I remember and feel like it.

I'll be honest in admitting to spending inordinate amounts of time in the very chair I'm writing this from, or otherwise sitting on the couch. I move, but I know I don't move nearly enough. 

That's bad news for more reasons than we'll go into today, but this sedentary lifestyle also has a significant negative impact on bone and joint health. 

How does physical inactivity ruin your bone and joint health?

  • A sedentary lifestyle weakens your joints and muscles, which puts you at a higher risk of stiffness and fractures. Your range of motion will gradually decrease. 
  • Physical inactivity increases your risk of osteoporosis, and if you already have it, a lack of exercise will also (somewhat counter-intuitively) make it more likely you'll sustain a fracture. 
  • Prolonged sitting, specifically, was found to be a significant risk factor for low back pain. 
  • Living a life devoid of physical activity could simultaneously increase your odds of developing arthritis (especially if you are also obese) and worsen your pain level and quality if life if you already suffer from arthritis. 

As the effects of a sedentary lifestyle kick in and you feel less energetic and experience aches and pains, you'll be even less inclined to get moving. To combat this difficult vicious cycle, it's best to stop this pattern in its tracks before it gets out of hand. People who know they spend too much time sitting can implement gradual changes. For those who already experience chronic pain, who are physically disabled, or who were diagnosed with a bone or joint condition such as arthritis it is, of course, best to consult a doctor before you get going with an exercise or movement plan. 

How can you increase your physical activity easily — without it feeling like a full-time job?

Nearly everyone who's physically able can, with some planning, meet the recommended recommendations for physical activity and do something active at least 30 minutes for five days a week. Since prolonged sitting was found harmful even if you exercise 150 minutes a week or more, some additional strategies can also come in handy. 

If you're like me, and you're really not moving enough, here's what you can do:

  • Know that you'll be healthier and feel better — physically, mentally, and cognitively — if you're physical active at least 30 minutes five times a week. This means you get your heart rate up and sweat a little. It's better to be active in small doses throughout the week than to do all your exercise in one go. It doesn't matter whether you exercise for health and recreation or for other purposes, such as work and household maintenance. It all counts. People who move 300 minutes a week reap more health benefits than those who commit to the minimum of 150 minutes, by the way, but if you've been really inactive recently, you will want to build it up slowly.
  • Biking, walking, gardening, raking leaves, shoveling snow, swimming, playing volleyball, jogging, and going to the gym are all examples of physical activities that are great for your health. If you choose activities that you either enjoy or need to do, you'll be more likely to stick with them.
  • If sitting is an inevitable part of your productive day — because you do it for work or education — then make sure to schedule regular breaks, during which you get up and move around, into your day. If you get up to do some stretching, stair-walking, or housework for five minutes every hour, it will help. You'll want to plan longer sessions into your day so that you don't forget about them.
  • It's best to combine both cardio activities, which get your heart rate up and will increase your stamina over time, and strength training, which will boost your strength. 
Physical activity has understandably slid to the bottom of our to-do lists since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, but this Bone and Joint Action Week is a good time to remember that a sedentary lifestyle, too, poses a threat to our health. It might not seem that way at first glance, but you can find 30 minutes a day to jog around the block, engage in some vigorous housework, or join a Zoom exercise class. 

I'm going to commit to doing better. Will you join me?

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