Sedentary behavior, like sitting or lying down, involves very little energy expenditure. It severely limits the calories you burn through NEAT.
To put this in perspective, studies report that agricultural workers can burn up to 1,000 more calories per day than people working desk jobs (4).
This is because farm workers spend most of their time walking and standing, rather than sitting in a chair.
Bottom Line: Sitting or lying down uses far less energy than standing or moving. This is why office workers may burn up to 1,000 fewer calories a day than agricultural workers.
The Longer You Sit, the Fatter You Get
When it comes to weight management, the fewer calories you burn, the more likely you are to gain weight.
This is why sedentary behavior is so closely linked to obesity.
In fact, research shows that obese individuals sit for an average of 2 hours longer each day than lean people do (5).
Bottom Line: People who sit for long periods of time are more likely to be overweight or obese.
Sitting Is Linked to Early Death
Observational data from over 1 million people shows that the more sedentary you are, the more likely you are to die early.
In fact, the most sedentary people had a 22–49% greater risk of early death (6, 7).
However, even though the majority of evidence supports this finding, one study found no link between sitting time and overall mortality (8).
This study had some flaws, which likely explain why it contradicts all other research in the area.
Bottom Line: The majority of evidence suggests that the most sedentary people have a much greater risk of dying early.
Sedentary Behavior Is Linked to Disease
Sedentary behavior is consistently linked to more than 30 chronic diseases and conditions.
This includes a 112% increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 147% increase in heart disease risk (6, 7).
Insulin resistance — a key driver of type 2 diabetes — has been a particular area of interest for those researching sedentary behavior.
Studies have shown that walking fewer than 1,500 steps per day, or sitting for long periods without reducing calorie intake, can cause a major increase in insulin resistance (9, 10).
Researchers believe that being sedentary has a direct effect on insulin resistance, and this can happen in as little as 1 day.
Bottom Line: Long-term sedentary behavior increases the risk of health conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Inactivity is believed to play a direct role in the development of insulin resistance.
Exercise Doesn’t Completely Eliminate the Risk
While regular exercise is always recommended, it can’t completely offset all the health risks of sitting too much.
One study tested this theory by measuring metabolic markers in 18 people following different exercise protocols.
When the entire day is spent sitting, one hour of intense exercise cannot make up for the negative effects of inactivity (11).
Additionally, a recent review of 47 studies found that prolonged sitting was strongly linked to negative health outcomes, regardless of exercise levels (6).
As expected, the negative effects were even greater for people who rarely exercised.
Bottom Line: Being physically active is incredibly beneficial, but exercise alone does not completely make up for the negative health effects of sitting.
Designing a Chair-Based World Was a Mistake
Modern humans spend a lot of time sitting, and are only now beginning to realize how bad it is for health.
That’s not to say you should never sit down and relax, just that you should try to minimize the time you spend sitting during the workday.
Minimizing sedentary time is just as important for health as a nutritious diet and regular exercise.
Exercising for 60 minutes a day, so that you can sit or lie down for the other 23 hours, is not going to cut it.
You can’t outrun a bad diet, and you can’t out-exercise a sedentary lifestyle.