What Exactly is Sedentary Behavior?

Definition of being sedentary - moving too little, sitting too much

Watching TV can lead to a sedentary lifestyle.
Watching TV can lead to a sedentary lifestyle.. theboone/Getty Images

We are often warned of the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, with growing evidence that being more active every day will help us avoid many age-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and even a failing memory as we get older. But what constitutes sedentary behavior?

In 2012 a team of scientists led by Catrine Tudor-Locke of the Walking Behavior Laboratory at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge addressed this question.

They chose to evaluate simple daily step count readings from pedometers, to determine how many steps each day are too few to ensure future health.

You're Sedentary if You Take Fewer than 5,000 Steps a Day

The team concluded that taking less than 5,000 steps each day represents sedentary behavior, with its many risks. They write that while an imperfect measure - a specific number of steps is not a good benchmark for children or adolescents, and must be verified for all groups of adults in future research - it remains an easy way to gauge subjects' activity in research. In addition, as they report in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, a healthy step goal such as 10,000 steps per day is a clear and effective one to promote for public health.

Indeed, a 2007 review of studies evaluating whether step-counting pedometers are linked to better health concluded that people who use these simple devices consistently are more physically active.

This was particularly true for adults who'd set themselves a daily step goal, such as 10,000 steps. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the review also found that pedometer-users have significant decreases in blood pressure and body mass index (BMI).

Sitting Time in Sedentary Lifestyle Raises Health Risks

Other studies have chosen a different measure to gauge how sedentary subjects were by charting hours per day of sitting time.

For example, a large 2014 study of more than 92,000 women (aged 50-79) participating in the Women's Health Initiative asked subjects how much time each day they spent sitting - at work, eating, driving, or watching TV - or lying down; then hours spent sleeping were subtracted, to determine total sedentary time.

Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. the study found that the subjects reporting the highest sedentary time - sitting or lying awake more than 11 hours each day - had a 12% greater risk of death from any cause, compared with those who sat the least (4 hours or less each day). Risks for specific diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer were substantially higher among the most sedentary women.

The study concludes that even allowing for physical activity, death risk was still significantly higher for women who sat more. In other words, sitting time itself appears to be hazardous, regardless of how much exercise you log when you're not seated.

Bottom Line on Being Sedentary

A growing body of evidence shows that walking fewer than 5,000 steps each day, or sitting more than 11 hours during daily waking time is hazardous to your health.

The 2014 study found that the more time subjects spent sitting, the greater their risk of death; that is, there was a linear relationship between sedentary time and mortality risk.

The good news? You can reduce your risks by standing more whether you're on the phone, reading a book, or holding a meeting at work - something researchers like James Levine from the Mayo Clinic recommend as a valuable way to boost health, even if you're getting regular exercise.


Dena M. Bravata, Crystal Smith-Spangler, Vandana Sundaram, Allison L. Gienger, et al. "Using Pedometers to Increase Physical Activity and Improve Health: A Systematic Review." JAMA. 2007;298(19):2296-2304.

Rebecca Seguin, David M. Buchner, Jingmin Liu, Matthew Allison, Todd Manini, Ching-Yun Wang, JoAnn E. Manson, Catherine R. Messina, Mahesh J. Patel, Larry Moreland, Marcia L. Stefanick, and Andrea Z. LaCroix. "Sedentary Behavior and Mortality in Older Women: The Women's Health Initiative." Am J Prev Med 2014;46(2):122-135.

Tudor-Locke C, Craig CL, Thyfault JP, Spence JC. "A Step-defined Sedentary Lifestyle Index: <5000 Steps/Day." Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Feb;38(2):100-14.

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