Sitting too much? Take steps to support healthy aging

The Bottom Line

  • Think about sitting less - not just exercising more – to lower your daily sitting time
  • Using a step counter and setting a goal (steps per day) can help you sit less
  • Spending too much time sitting or reclining can increase the risk of health issues including heart problems, type 2 diabetes, depression and even cancer.

Do you remember being implored as a child to “please sit quietly” and finding it almost impossible to do? How much better we got at it as we grew older!

Well, it turns out this is one skill we shouldn’t be practicing to perfection. Studies show that too many of us spend too much time being “sedentary” – sitting or lying down and expending very little energy (1,2). In fact, most Canadians spend at least half our waking hours sitting (2). That includes the hours we spend commuting, at work and during our leisure time (watching television and computer screens, reading, dining).

Too much time spent sitting can increase our risk for heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, depression and other mental health concerns, and cancer (3,4,5). What’s more, even adults who exercise for the minimum recommended 150 minutes a week are still at risk of poor health if they regularly sit for long stretches of time (5). That may come as a surprise to people who think that as long as they’re getting some regular exercise, it doesn’t matter what they do – or don’t do – the rest of the time.

One recent systematic review measured the effectiveness of programs aimed at reducing adults’ sedentary time and the impact on health risks (6). The review included 34 randomized controlled trials and involved more than 5,800 participants who took part in various programs focusing on promoting physical activity, reducing sedentary time, changing lifestyle behaviours, or combinations of those approaches.

Studies ranged in length from three to six months and compared changes in sedentary time (self-reported or measured using devices such as step counters) between those involved in a program to those in a control group.

What the research tells us

Programs and supports to reduce sedentary time do work – at least in the short term. Programs that focused on decreasing sitting time or changing lifestyle behaviours reduced sedentary time by 42 minutes and 24 minutes a day respectively, although these benefits did not last in the long term (6).

Interestingly, programs focused solely on promoting exercise resulted in little or no change. In other words, we need to think about sitting less – not just exercising more – to change our sedentary behaviour.

Devices that measure steps and activity may help you make these changes. Evidence from another recent systematic review, including 15 randomized controlled trials and over 3200 participants (7) found that step counters such as pedometers or accelerometers help to reduce sedentary time a small but significant amount (participants spent on average 23 minutes less a day being sedentary).

The results suggest that setting a goal – for example 10,000 steps a day – helps reduce sedentary time even more, particularly if the goal is customized to the needs and abilities of the individual.

A few tips to reduce sitting time include taking frequent breaks from your desk or couch to move about; walking around while talking on the phone; and cleaning, exercising or doing activities while watching television (8). Monitor your own daily habits and if you find you’re sitting too long and too often, then for your own good – get up and get moving!

Walking with other people may help you meet your step goals. Click here to learn more about the benefits of walking groups. 

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Author Details


  1. Dunstan DW, Howard B, Healy GN et al. Too much sitting – a health hazard. Diabetes Res Clin Pract 2012; 97:368-376.
  2. Colley RC, Garriguet D, Jannsen I et al. Physical activity of Canadian adults: accelerometer results from the 2007 to 2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey Health Rep. 2011; 22:7-14.
  3. De Rezende LF, Lopes MR, Rey-Lopez J et al. Sedentary behavior and health outcomes: an overview of systematic reviews. PLos One. 2014; 9(8).
  4. Wilmot E, Edwardson C, Achana F et al. Sedentary time in adults and association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetolgia. 2012; 55:2895-2905.
  5. Biswas A, Oh PL, Faulkner GE et al. Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality and hospitalization in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2015; 162:123-132.
  6. Martin A, Fitzsimmons C, Jepson R et al. Interventions with potential to reduce sedentary time in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2015; 49:1056-1063.
  7. Qiu S, Cai X, Ju C et al. Step counter use and sedentary time in adults: A meta-analysis. Medicine. 2015; 94:e1412.
  8. Canadian Cancer Society. Sedentary behaviour – Reducing your risk. [Internet; cited Jan 2016] Available from: http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-101/what-is-a-risk-factor/sedentary-behaviour/?region=on

DISCLAIMER: The blogs are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own healthcare professionals.

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