Sitting too much as you age can be hazardous

Harold Mandel's picture
An elderly man walking his dog

It is actually dangerous for older people to sit too much. There has been a great deal of interest in improvements seen in the overall health and well being of people throughout life with increasing exercise. However, while stressing the vital importance of staying active to stay healthy, we generally fail to consider that the benefits of a healthy lifestyle can nevertheless still be undermined if you sit too much as you age. Recent research shows it's important to avoid too much sedentary behavior regardless of how much you exercise.

Sedentary time in older adults has been found to be associated with disability in activities of daily living in an independent manner from physical activity, reported the Journal of Physical Activity and Health. Researchers decided to explore the harmful relationship of sedentary behavior to health with an interest in determining if this may reflect an exchange of sedentary activity for moderate vigorous activity or if sedentary behavior may instead be a separate risk factor. They examined whether or not time which is spent in sedentary behavior is associated to disability in activities of daily living (ADL), independent of the time which is spent in moderate vigorous activity in older adults.

This study included 2286 adults aged 60 years and older. The researchers evaluated the association between ADL task disability and the daily percentage of sedentary time. They found that the chances of ADL disability were 46 percent greater for each daily hour which was spent in sedentary behavior, as adjusted for moderate vigorous activity, socioeconomic, and health factors.

The researchers concluded there is a strong relationship which exists between greater time which is spent in sedentary behavior and the presence of ADL disability, which is independent of the time which is spent in moderate or vigorous activity. These findings are in support of programs which encourage older adults to lower their sedentary behavior time regardless of how much they engage in moderate or vigorous activity.

This new study states if you’re 60 and older, for each additional hour a day you which you spend sitting there is an association to a doubling of the risk of being disabled, regardless of how much moderate exercise you get, reports Northwestern University. This is very significant because it is the first study which shows that sedentary behavior is its own risk factor for disability, which is separate from lack of moderate vigorous physical activity. As a matter of fact this Northwestern University study shows that sedentary behavior is almost as strong a risk factor for disability as is a lack of moderate exercise.

The implications of an analysis of the data are startling. Consider that the study shows if there are two 65-year-old women, one who is sedentary for 12 hours a day and another who is sedentary for 13 hours a day, the second woman one is 50 percent more likely to be disabled. Dorothy Dunlop, professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the study, has said, “This is the first time we’ve shown sedentary behavior was related to increased disability regardless of the amount of moderate exercise.”

Greater than 56 million Americans are affected by disability. Being disabled is defined by limitations in being able to do basic activities such as:

1: Eating

2: Dressing or bathing oneself


3: Getting in and out of bed and walking across a room

There is an increased risk of hospitalization and institutionalization with disability along with dramatic increases in health care costs.

Dunlop was surprised by the finding that being sedentary was almost as powerful a risk factor for disability as lack of moderate vigorous activity. She has expressed the importance of therefore understanding that older adults need to reduce the amount of time they spend sitting, regardless of how much they participate in moderate or vigorous activity.Although this study doesn’t definitively determine sedentary behavior as a cause of disability, it draws attention to the fact that this is clearly a potential problem.

Dunlop has made the following specific suggestions to cut down on sedentary behavior:

1: Stand up when you are talking on the phone or during a meeting at work

2: Park in a space which is far away when you go to grocery store or mall

3: When you get up to have glass of water, take some time to walk around the house or office

4: When you go on short errands, walk instead of taking the car

5: Whenever possible, take the stairs instead of the elevator

The lesson to be learned from this study is to stay active. I have found that a lot of people think if they get a standard suggested 30 minutes of brisk physical activity in a day they should be fine. What this means is that's not exactly all that counts. If you get a brisk 30 minute walk, jog or bike ride in daily and spend the remainder of your time sitting watching TV or working on a computer, your health may very well still be at risk. Sure, it's important to get in that daily exercise, and now we are finding it's also vitally important to stay as active as possible during the remainder of your day.