Living A Sedentary Lifestyle? Advice From A Medical Researcher And A Personal Trainer Will Get You Moving Despite Your Busy Schedule

2018 is the year of you. Here’s why your health and happiness are worth the effort.

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How many hours in a day do you spend sitting? If you’re like many American women who work in an office, it may be enough to sabotage your health. More American women are living sedentary lifestyles than ever before. Our jobs, our neighborhoods, and the amount of time we spend interacting online have changed the way we think about physical activity. Where activity was once built into our lives, now it’s extremely common for the walk from the house to the car, the car to the office, and then the car back to the house to be the primary physical movement we get in a day. But our bodies just aren’t built to live that way. Never mind weight, clothing size, or judgment. What really matters is your health and happiness, and with our real, practical advice sourced directly from experts and tested by women like you, you’re closer than ever to ditching a sedentary lifestyle and feeling like your most vital self in 2018.

Are you sedentary without even knowing it?

More of us are routinely sedentary than you’d think. In fact, research says at least 25 to 35 percent of all American adults have chronically sedentary lifestyles. There are lots of ways to define a sedentary lifestyle, but one of the clearest involves a measure of the steps you take daily. If you’re routinely moving fewer than 5,000 steps a day (or the equivalent), which is about two and a half miles, your lifestyle is considered sedentary by researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center. That said, there’s a difference between sedentary behaviors and leading a sedentary lifestyle. We all have sedentary behaviors, like working at a desk for several hours a day, commuting in traffic, jamming out to Netflix on the couch, or (I’m looking at you, Chrissy Teigen) lying down and playing Animal Crossing on our phones.

If you’re routinely moving fewer than 5,000 steps a day, your lifestyle is considered sedentary by researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology also found that women who sit inactively for more than six hours every day are nearly twice as likely to experience life-threatening health conditions as women who sit less than three hours per day, meaning women are even more susceptible to the negative effects of sedentary life than men. Yikes. And if you’re thinking the average female with a desk job falls into this category, you’re right: She does.

Sitting is the New Smoking (and How to Ditch the Habit)

It turns out that even women who get some regular exercise can be affected by “sitting disease,” a term coined to describe the negative impact of too much time spent sitting still in a day. In fact, the World Health Organization says, “Insufficient physical activity is one of the leading risk factors for death worldwide.” Okay, that’s definitely unnerving, but don’t freak out yet. There is hope, even if you’ve tried before and failed to change your sedentary lifestyle. As Esther Avant, a certified nutrition coach and personal trainer, tells HealthyWay, “About 99 percent of the women I work with have been in that exact situation.” She goes on to share that she has personally witnessed hundreds of formerly sedentary women go on to kick ass and live active lifestyles by working on making small, sustainable changes, rather than focusing on quick, all-or-nothing fixes.

Hundreds of formerly sedentary women go on to kick ass and live active lifestyles by working on making small, sustainable changes, rather than focusing on quick, all-or-nothing fixes.

It’s so important to remember that a little movement is better than none. In fact, a 2015 study found that as little as 20 minutes of brisk walking daily can significantly reduce your risk of an early death related to physical inactivity, not to mention giving you an instant mood boost.

Self-Motivation: Bidding Self-Judgement Farewell and Embracing Positives (Even When You’ve Failed Before)

Michelle Segar, PhD, master of public health, and director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center says that even though there are tons of scary statistics thrown around in an attempt to frighten people away from living a sedentary lifestyle (like worsening depression and anxiety, increasing your risk for cancer, causing blood sugar spikes, and generally increasing aches and pains), scare tactics don’t generally work to change behaviors long term. Instead, “we want to promote [movement] for its immediate benefits,” she says. So rather than trying to shame yourself into moving more, Segar encourages women to focus on all the benefits movement can have. “Let’s tell people it will immediately generate energy and help them lift their moods. Now isn’t that a more compelling reason to get out of the chair?”

Even though there are tons of scary statistics thrown around in an attempt to frighten people away from living a sedentary lifestyle, scare tactics don’t generally work to change behaviors long term.

Avant agrees that focusing on the positives, like how good gentle exercise can make you feel, and avoiding pushing yourself too hard at first are the secrets to succeeding in a fitness regimen that addresses physical inactivity, even if you thought you’d never be able to. “The key to successfully going from sedentary to active is starting small, even smaller than you think,” she emphasizes. “Start small and prove to yourself that you can do it. Set small goals and then accomplish them. That empowers you to realize that you can do a little more the next week, so maybe you add a fourth day or one day of bodyweight exercises. Each week, you build your confidence and motivation when you accomplish your goals and you do a little bit more. This sure beats the old approach of trying to change everything at once week one, falling short, getting disappointed, and quitting.”

Change your “why” for working out.

In her book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, Segar writes about how we’ve been taught we need to work out to lose weight, look a certain way, and avoid bad health. “But those are logical and pragmatic reasons to move,” she says, “not the type of emotional motives and hooks that [actually help women] stick with it long term.” So rather than thinking about all those “shoulds” for why we need to get exercise, what would work better? “We need to help people learn the immediate emotional and positive, feel-good benefits they’ll get from moving instead, like joy, vitality, and connection,” she emphasizes.

“Let’s tell people it will immediately generate energy and help them lift their moods. Now isn’t that a more compelling reason to get out of the chair?” —Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH

So being kind to yourself works—even when trying to combat what can sometimes feel like a stigmatizing sedentary lifestyle? Sounds good to me! It seems that if you truly want to change your sedentary behavior, focusing on the potential negatives of physical inactivity rather than on how good you can feel when you’re active will likely backfire. It’s not about weight. It’s not about appearance. It’s about remembering to give yourself the best care and nurturing that you can. It’s about body positivity, feeling healthy and vivacious, and making changes that make you feel good—both in the moment and over the long term. In many cases, the biggest barriers to addressing a sedentary lifestyle, sedentary behavior, and physical inactivity are your thought patterns, so get ready to start small—and with honest introspection—to make lasting change.

Starting Small and Winning Big: A One-Month Beginner’s Plan

Even if your starting point is a truly sedentary lifestyle and you’ve already tried (and maybe even failed) to get active, we’ve got your back. Avant designed and shared this step-by-step routine to take HealthyWay readers from deskbound and binge-watching to vital and capable movement mavens. Here’s what she recommends:

Week 1

Pick three days when you’ll walk for 30 minutes. Pencil these walks into your calendar like important appointments so you make them happen. Shooting for three walks during the week gives you plenty of opportunities to make up a walk you might miss—so have a backup day planned in case something pops up.

Week 2

Pencil in three walks and add in one day of bodyweight exercises. A quick, total-body workout could include the following exercises performed in a circuit for two sets of 10 reps: push-ups, squats, bench (or chair!) dips, lunges, and 30-second plank holds.

“We need to help people learn the immediate emotional and positive, feel-good benefits they’ll get from moving instead, like joy, vitality, and connection.” —Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH

Week 3

This week, commit to three walks and two days of the same bodyweight workout you completed once during Week 2.

Week 4

Add a third set to your bodyweight workout circuit and increase the length of your three walks by five to 10 minutes each. Initially, you committed to 30 minutes of exercise, three times a week—by the end of the month, you’ll be up to 30 to 45 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week, with a combination of strength and aerobic training, which Avant calls a major improvement! Talk about busting out of your sedentary lifestyle and committing to an endorphin- and confidence-boosting routine!

Common Excuses (and High-Impact Solutions)

I asked both Avant and Segar about the most common reasons women don’t exercise, and what their most motivating responses have been. Here are some of the best motivational rebuttals inspired by the pros. Excuse: I don’t have time. Solution: Redefine how much time it takes to work out. If you’re truly strapped, just take a brisk one-mile walk around your neighborhood. You won’t need to change clothes or drive all the way to the gym, so you’ll save that time. And if you’re willing to be a bit introspective here, think of it this way: It’s not necessarily that you don’t have time to work out, it’s that you have other priorities that you’re putting before overcoming your sedentary lifestyle. Ask yourself: Am I willing to change around any of my priorities to address my physical inactivity? Your answer to yourself should be enlightening and may lead to a shift in priorities. Excuse: I can’t afford a gym membership, or when I get to the gym I don’t know what to do and feel silly. Solution: Just start with walking. You can walk outside, or even around a mall if it’s miserable out. After you’ve done that for a while, you might move on to slowly running, or following one of the many couch-to-5k programs out there (I recommend this one from famous running coach Hal Higdon, which I used once upon a time when I was a newbie to fitness). Once you gain confidence in your base fitness, go ahead and try the gym again if you can afford it. If not, troll YouTube for free no-equipment-needed workout videos or check out HealthyWay’s free Holiday HIIT series or ultra low-cost wellness plan advice.

Ask yourself: Am I willing to change around any of my priorities to address my physical inactivity?

Excuse: I just don’t like exercise. Solution: Well, you may be working out too hard. Yes, really. If you hate running, for instance, you may be trying to run too fast for your current fitness level. Exercise should feel mostly good, so slow down, don’t compare yourself to others, choose activities that fit your interests, and learn to love the boost exercise can give you, especially when it means freedom from deeply entrenched patterns of physical inactivity and sedentary behavior.

Finally: 6 Ways to Trick Yourself Into Moving More

We think nearly everyone will be able to succeed by making small changes, focusing on the positive feels, and giving themselves as many chances as they need to address their sedentary lifestyle or sedentary behavior. That said, if all else fails, what’s wrong with simply fooling yourself into moving more and reaping the benefits? Here are some ways to sneak activity into your week:

  1. Buy a standing desk converter. Okay, so you may not be able to control what desk your office provides for you, and you may not want to stand all day long anyway. But with an adjustable standing desk, you can convert your existing desk into a standing work station for part of the day, then just push it back into place when you need to sit back down.
  2. Schedule walks with friends instead of coffee shop chats.
  3. Track your movement (I love my Fitbit, which also tracks heart rate and calories burned) and share the data with friends or co-workers for a little friendly competition and support. Lots of people find that they get kind of obsessed with the data and that it keeps them motivated.
  4. Make exercise a seamless part of your day by trying a human-powered commute. This won’t work in every circumstance, but if you live close to work, try walking a few days a week. If you live a little further (but not crazy far) try strapping your helmet on and riding your bike. It may take some time to start this new habit and convince yourself to leave the car keys or MetroCard on the shelf, but you can change your ways slowly by starting with doing the human-powered commute just once or twice per week. I’ve gone so far as to leave my kid’s car seat at a friend’s house so I would have no choice but to bike my daughter to and from her daycare (with helmets and kiddy bike seat, of course)!
  5. Even if you can’t commit to an entirely human-powered commute, park further away and walk more. The stress of finding a spot close to the office, school, or grocery store dissipates, and you’ll get more steps in. You can also commit to avoiding your building’s elevator in favor of climbing the stairs.
  6. Download an exercise motivation app like MyFitnessPal to incorporate your love of tech with your health and fitness pursuits.

Do you need a sign to inspire your commitment to making 2018 the year of you? Consider this it. We’re rooting for you.

Cammy Pedroja
Cammy is a freelance writer and journalist living in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter. Cammy specializes in lifestyle, women’s issues, wellness, and pop culture topics. A background in academia in publishing has made her a skilled researcher, with experience working in the editorial departments of such places as The New Yorker and Narrative Magazine. With an MFA from Columbia University and a nearly finished PhD, her work has appeared widely across publications like HuffPost, USA Today, Parent, The List, FIELD, and New England Review.

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