How a Sedentary Lifestyle Impacts Your Health

You’ve probably heard that you can have “too much of a good thing.” And even though resting after a long day of work feels good, it can be a bad thing for your health. I’m Lauren Masi, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Board-certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist. I’m also the owner and Clinical Services Director of Bay Area Physical Therapy and Lafayette Physical Therapy. Today we’re going to talk about how a sedentary lifestyle can impact your health.

Are We Less Active Than We Were in the Past?

Nowadays, people are much more sedentary. Kids are playing on more technology screens (TVs, video games, tablets) and are less active outside. They’re not running around and playing with other friends quite as often. And adults tend to have more desk jobs; and now since COVID, a lot of us are working at home in less-than-ideal workspaces with poor ergonomic setups.

What Happens When You Sit All Day Long?

Sitting all day can lead to a myriad of different musculoskeletal issues. We can end up with tight muscles (such as your hip flexors) from sitting so long because they become shortened. They adaptively shorten, and thus become also weaker, because when muscles are shorter than they’re supposed to be (or if they’re too stretched out), they actually are weaker muscles.

Our core and our glute muscles, our buttock muscles, we’re just not using them as much. And all of these different changes can lead to muscle imbalances that can lead to pain: 

  • Upper back pain
  • Hip pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Should pain
  • Neck pain
  • Headaches

Does a Sedentary Lifestyle Impact Your Heart?

The sedentary lifestyle means that we have a decreased cardiovascular capacity. Overall, our cardiovascular health is not being challenged, so our heart isn’t pumping as strong, getting that oxygenated blood through our bodies.

Our lungs aren’t taking in enough oxygen, and what we end up noticing is that when we do try to go back and be active, we might be more out of breath or more fatigued, which can lead to more injury. We’re not prepared for that increased load.

How Long Does it Take to Build or Lose Muscle Strength?

One statistic that we know is that, on a cellular level, muscle strengthening can take six to eight weeks. If you look at specific parts of muscles under a microscope, we don’t see them actually bulking up and changing for about six to eight weeks. 

But if we are sedentary and we’re not working out and challenging these muscles, we can start losing strength and having muscular cellular decline in just seven days. That’s crazy how long it takes us to get stronger and how fast it goes away. But that’s also why most of us are not looking like the fit, muscularly ripped people that we hope to be.

Take Time to Get Your Heart Rate Up Each Day

What I encourage is that you take time every day for some sort of physical activity and some stretching. I want you to try to get your heart rate up to build that cardiovascular strength. Generally speaking, if you can get your heart rate up for about 20 minutes every day, five days a week, we know that that proves to benefit your cardiovascular system.

How Do You Get Your Heart Rate Up?

What do I mean by getting your heart rate up? Here’s a quick and easy measurement: take 220 and subtract your age. That’s a gross estimate of your maximum heart rate. Multiply that number by 60%, that’s your low end. Then multiply the same number by 80% to get your high end. You want to have about 20 minutes of activity that gets your heart rate up into that 60% – 80% range, five days a week.

Example: you’re 35. Take 220, subtract 35, you get 185 as your max heart rate. Multiply 185 by 60%, you get 111. Multiply 185 by 80%, you get 148. This means that you want to do 20 minutes of activity five days per week that gets your heart rate minimally above 111 beats per minute and maximally up to 148 beats per minute.

Take Time to Stretch Each Day

If you’re sitting at a desk all day, you should take time to stretch. It doesn’t have to be structured yoga or anything like that, but it could be. But you need some time to undo those shortened positions by: 

  • Stretching out your neck muscles
  • Rolling on a foam roller
  • Even just sitting on the floor and playing with your kids down there
  • You can sit crisscross applesauce or with your legs out in a V shape

And you’re going to start to notice, “Ooh, my hamstrings are a little tighter than I remember.” By making sure that you pay attention to all of these different aspects of your health, you can avoid those negative effects that a sedentary lifestyle can have.

Start Back Up at 50% of What You Used to Do

If you once were active and then you took a break due to injury or time, and now you’re trying to get back into your sport, please, please, please don’t return to that sport too quickly.

I’ll usually tell people to return at 50% of whatever they were doing before and work their way back up. So if you’re going to the gym and you used to leg press 100 pounds, start at 50 pounds. Also, if you used to do 50 set reps, do 25 set reps. Then see how you feel the next day. 

It might be too easy for you, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You want to work back up slowly. If you return to your active lifestyle too quickly, that’s where sometimes I’ll see patients who have acute flare ups or inflammation. Sometimes that can sideline you even longer or dissuade you from returning to activity at all. And then we have an even longer, more chronic problem to address.

Call Bay Area Physical Therapy for More Information

If you need help and guidance to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, or to get you back on track if you’ve recognized maybe you have been a little bit too sedentary, we can help. Please call our front desk at (925) 284-3840 for a complimentary consultation and we can set up an evaluation as soon as possible.

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