Sedentary Habits: How to Break Free

As we are more sedentary than ever, it’s important we break up prolonged periods of sitting to protect our bodies from the associated risks. This blog includes easy ways you can incorporate movement into your working day.

Written by Lois Williams


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We are more sedentary than ever


As we find ourselves in the midst of another lockdown, most of us have returned to working exclusively from home. With no commute and no other reason to leave the house, other than for essentials and exercise, many are moving from bed to desk, perhaps going a whole day without venturing further than the fridge. We are more sedentary than ever before. Sitting at a screen has been the sole method of working, relaxing and socialising for months on end – the “zoom fatigue” has been real. As a result, we are sitting more and moving less.

Sedentary lifestyles: the key facts


  • 1 in 4 are physically inactive (WHO2018). 
  • 4th leading risk factor for mortality (WHO, 2018). 
  • 29% of all sickness absences in 2018/19 were accounted for by musculoskeletal conditions (Health & Safety Executive). 
  • 80% of adults are estimated to experience low back pain in their lifetime (Rubin, 2007).
  • 32x per day you need to alternate between sitting and standing to mitigate the effects of prolonged sitting (Vernikos et al., 1996).


The risks


It is estimated that four in five people have experienced musculoskeletal problems since the shift to WFH. Results from our survey in March 2020 revealed that 36% did not have a good ergonomic set up at home. In addition to poor posture, sitting for long periods of time puts stress on the spinal muscles and discs, reducing their protective resistance and increasing the risk of chronic back and neck problems that an estimated 1 in 5 will experience per year (Rubin, 2007). By going from sitting to standing, the body is exposed to gravity which helps to engage spinal muscles and to slow muscle and bone atrophy as a function of ageing.

Known as the ‘silent killer’ and coined ‘the new smoking,’ research has shown that physical inactivity puts us at a higher risk of developing a multitude of long-term health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers. It’s also responsible for slowing metabolism, increasing blood pressure and accelerating the deterioration of muscles and bones.

The quick fix: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)


We’re not saying the key to mitigate the risks is by doing rigorous, high intensity exercise. A 30 min HIIT session isn’t going to balance out the effects of sitting at your laptop for 8 hours. It’s the small, everyday movements which break up periods of prolonged sitting that protect our bodies from the risk factors of being sedentary, otherwise known as NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis). NEAT metabolises the bulk of our energy during the day aside from when we’re sleeping, eating or exercising.  


Getting up once in a while for just a few minutes engages our muscles, bones and ligaments, as well as stimulating our blood flow and metabolism – responsible for regulating blood pressure and sugar levels. Research has shown that we should aim to alternate between sitting and standing at least 32 times a day to protect against the effects of being sedentary (Vernikos et al., 1996). The UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines report recommends breaking up long periods of sitting time with activity for just 1 to 2 minutes to keep the metabolic processes in the body functioning healthily. Moving more also helps to boost self-esteem, mood and energy levels, crucial in a time when it’s more important than ever to take care of our health. 

NEAT habits


The best way to reduce sedentary periods at work is to make being active and moving a part of the job. Design should facilitate and promote everyday movements such as standing up from the desk, using the stairs and having to move to use the facilities. Agile working affords control over our working environment, and having a variety of settings such as collaboration and quiet focus areas encourages people to move around their workplace. The result is a healthier, happier and energised workforce.


Examples of NEAT include; climbing the stairs, opening a door, gardening, standing up, cleaning, cooking.


NEAT while WFH; 

  • Use a small glass so that you have to get up more often to refill it 
  • Set a reminder in your calendar or phone to move every 30 mins 
  • Stand up or walk during telephone calls or meetings  
  • Alternate between sitting and standing desks (tip: improvise by using the kitchen counter or ironing board as a desk) 
  • Go for a walk at lunch time (if you’re in Bristol, why not try this walk?)


NEAT in the office; 

  • Park further away from the office or get off the bus at an earlier stop 
  • Take the stairs instead of the lift  
  • Walk to a colleague’s desk instead of emailing or calling 
  • Use the bathroom on a different floor 
  • Agile working – switch workstations throughout the day 
  • Eat lunch away from the desk 


To conclude…


By raising awareness around the risks of sedentary lifestyles we can all make a conscious effort to break up prolonged periods of sitting at our desks. Which activity will you incorporate into your day? Let us know on social: Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook

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