I am ashamed to admit how much time I spend sitting. One of the lucky workers with a computer job, I am planted in a chair for most of the day. As I write these words, I am — you guessed it — sitting. Save for my daily workouts and brief walks to and from my car or the bus (where I, again, sit) and friends’ homes or restaurants (where sitting once more occurs), the entirety of my day is spent seated. In my 20s, I never paid much attention to my sedentary habits. Now, a decade later, I feel the tension in my lower back and hips if I sit for too long.
I’m not the only one hopelessly devoted to the sit. American adults spend an average of 7.7 hours a day seated. Both prolonged sitting — extended, uninterrupted periods of time in a seat — and sedentary behaviors — tasks that expend extremely little energy, such as playing video games, watching television, using a computer, or reading a book — are linked to a number of negative health outcomes. Sedentary behavior increases your risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early death. Sitting for long periods of time also ups your chances for blood clots, back and joint pain, weight gain, and cancer.
And regular physical activity does little to offset the negative impacts of prolonged sitting. Keith Diaz, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, says, “The muscles, it’s great for them to be active and stimulated really heavily and really hard for 30 minutes or 60 minutes, whatever you do for your exercise. But eventually they stop doing their job again when you don’t use them.”
When seated, leg muscles are in a shortened position, which can lead to stiffness, pain, and difficulty moving, says Scott Capozza, an oncology physical therapist at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale Cancer Center. “Also, if we’re sitting for longer periods of time, we’re not engaging in any kind of cardiovascular activity,” he adds. “So it’s not good for the heart, for the lungs, for our circulation.”
There is some good news, though: A 2023 study co-authored by Diaz found that just five minutes of light walking every half hour can help reduce some of these risks. There are also modifications for those with limited mobility or who use a wheelchair to get their movement breaks, experts say. In general, experts consider one hour to be the maximum amount of time people should spend sitting at any given time: In addition to the 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity physical activity recommended by the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, you should strive to get out of your seat at least once an hour to offset the negative effects of prolonged sitting. Here’s some expert-approved advice on how to do it.
How to remind yourself to move
Back-to-back Zoom meetings or highly engrossing media may keep you glued to your chair for hours at a time, sometimes without your noticing. In his 2023 study, Diaz found most participants simply forgot to stand. Many smartwatches and fitness trackers can display movement reminders, prompting users to get up after a certain length of time. If you don’t have one, Capozza recommends setting alarms or reminders on your phone for every 30 to 60 minutes or putting notes next to your computer screen reminding you to stand up.
Diaz suggests tying your movements to a routine. For those with many meetings, whether virtual or in person, use the end of each conversation as a cue to get some movement. Or after you complete a slide in the presentation you’re preparing, go for a short walk. Try swapping out your 40-ounce Stanley tumbler for a smaller water bottle that requires more refills — which means more visits to the kitchen. “When you tie it into your routines,” Diaz says, “that’s when it helps become more sustainable and becomes part of a habit you don’t have to rely on, like a reminder to do it.”
Your body gives the best signals for when you should move. Don’t ignore stiffness or lethargy or mistakenly consider muscle tightness a sign to continue resting — take it as a cue to move, Diaz says.
How to get more movement into your day
Once you’re out of your seat, there are a number of low-effort movements you can try. Whether you work in an office or at home, you can take trips to fill up your water bottle or to go to the bathroom. If you can, try to use the water fountain that’s farthest away from your desk or a bathroom that’s on another floor, Capozza suggests. To make the best use of phone time, take a walk or unload the dishwasher while on calls. (A headset or wireless headphones will save your neck and help with hands-free chatting.) Commuters can park at the back of the parking lot or get off public transit a stop or two early and walk the rest of the way to work if time and weather allow.
Walking meetings, while a relatively niche concept, encourage more movement throughout the workday, says Burton Cowgill, an adjunct associate professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. However, these types of culture changes require buy-in from leadership, Cowgill says, to encourage less sedentary behavior. “We need to recognize that we are frequently in environments that may limit us by their rules [or] culture around doing that,” he says. “This is why it takes both support from leadership, management, institutions to allow employees, students, even patients in health care settings to engage in these activities of movement.”
If you’re in the middle seat on a plane or enrolled in a three-hour class with limited breaks, you can still move while seated. Fidgeting, tapping your toes, rolling your shoulders, doing seated heel raises and ankle rolls, and extending your legs can keep your joints limber, Cowgill and Capozza say. Other relatively easy movements you can do by your desk (or in front of the television) include mini squats in and out of your chair or wall push-ups.
People with limited mobility have options for interspersing movement in their day, too. If you are able to move your legs, you can try extending them a few times, marching in a seated position, or flexing your ankles, Capozza says. For upper-body movements, you can raise your arms above your head and to the side in the shape of a capital T and Y. Diaz recommends cycling or pumping your arms and using resistance bands. If you’re able, Diaz also suggests putting on music and dancing in whatever way is most comfortable for the duration of a song.
How long and how intensely you move makes a difference
Any amount of movement, even if it’s just standing and touching your toes, is preferable to sitting for long durations. However, Diaz and his colleagues found five minutes of low-intensity walking to be more effective at counteracting the negative effects of sitting than one minute of low-intensity walking. While he doesn’t have evidence yet, Diaz suspects moving for shorter durations at higher intensities may be as efficient as longer durations at lower intensities. “My hunch is that the one minute of moderate to vigorous [movement] is better than the one minute of light,” he says. “I would say if somebody only has a minute, go do something a little bit more intense.” Maybe that’s brisk walking or climbing up and down a set of stairs.
Those with schedules requiring them to sit for hours at a time — like truck or ride-hail drivers — should try to work in longer stretches of movement when they can, like doing housework or playing with kids at the end of the workday instead of heading for the couch. “If you had to sit in class for two hours,” Diaz says, “I’d go walk for 10 minutes afterward.”
When you are sitting, make sure you have good posture
During the times you are seated, proper alignment is crucial to avoid any neck or low back pain, Capozza says. Make sure your hips and pelvis are slightly above your knees. Your feet should be on the ground with equal weight distributed between both, meaning you don’t want one foot to be elevated on a stool or ledge. Make sure to keep your weight balanced between your pelvis and your feet to take pressure off your back. “You don’t want to be too far back in your chair so that more of your weight is on your pelvis and your hips,” Capozza says, “but you don’t want to be too far forward in your chair so that more and more weight is on your feet.”
Ensure your screen is at eye level so you’re looking straight ahead and not down. Capozza recommends sitting 18 to 24 inches away from your computer screen. Try not to slouch forward or raise your shoulders.
Don’t rush out to buy a standing desk, either: “We’re also seeing evidence that if you stand too long, you can develop issues,” Cowgill says. “It’s that balance of having a desk that you can adjust and doing some sitting, some standing throughout the day.”
Ideally, you should aim to move as much as possible during all of your waking hours, not just the workday, Diaz says, especially if you have a very sedentary job. However, as your day winds down, you can focus more on rest. “Our bodies need rest and recovery from stressful days,” Diaz says. “I love to sit down at the end of the day … just relaxing and watching Netflix. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. As long as I’ve made an effort throughout my day to be more active and take those movements, I don’t have to feel guilty at the end of the day.”