When I was in high school, I mowed my grandmother’s lawn once a week. Yet every time I arrived, she would have already mowed a small part of the back yard. I always told her she didn’t need to do that, but she insisted. At the time I didn’t understand why she felt compelled to do this every week, but now that I’m inching closer and closer to her age then, I get it: it was something she could do to stay active. She knew that to stave off the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, it is important to move more every day.
The older we get, the more likely we are to lapse into a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, an estimated 67% of older adults report sitting for more than eight hours per day, and only 28% to 34% of adults ages 65 to 74 are physically active, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Evelyn O’Neill, manager of outpatient exercise programs at the Harvard-affiliated Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, sees the consequences of too much sitting every day. “Sitting is the new smoking in terms of health risks,” she says. “Lack of movement is perhaps more to blame than anything for a host of health problems.”
The dangers of a sedentary lifestyle
A sedentary life can affect your health in ways you may not realize. For example, prolonged sitting, like spending hours watching television, can increase your chance of developing venous thrombosis (potentially fatal blood clots that form in the deep veins of the legs), according to a study of more than 15,000 people. In fact, people who watched television the most had a 70% greater risk of suffering from venous thrombosis compared with those who never or seldom watched TV.
On the flip side, squeezing in extra movement during the day can have a big impact. For instance, simply standing more can help you lose weight and keep it off, according to a review published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.
Everyday activities that incorporate more walking also can build up your leg muscles, which may help you live longer. Researchers have found that loss of leg muscle strength and mass is associated with slower walking speeds among older adults. Slower speeds are linked to a lower 10-year survival rate for people after age 75.
Simple ways to move more every day
One way to combat the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle is to work small bits of exercise into your daily routine. There are many ways to do this, according to O’Neill. “Even if you aren’t sweating or feeling like you’re working hard, you are still moving your arms and legs, stimulating your muscles, and working your joints,” she says.
Focus on adding just 30 minutes of extra activity into your day, three days a week. “You can break it down into smaller segments, too, like 10 minutes in the morning, afternoon, and evening,” says O’Neill. What can you do during that time? Here are some strategies to help you move more every day:
- Walk for five minutes every two hours.
- Get up and walk around or march in place during TV commercials.
- Do a few sets of heel raises, where you stand on your toes. “Try it while you brush your teeth or make breakfast,” says O’Neill.
- Always stand or walk around when you’re on the phone.
- Do a set or two of push-ups against the kitchen counter. “Your body weight is always a good way to strengthen muscles,” says O’Neill.
- Use soup cans as dumbbells and do 10 to 20 reps of biceps curls.
- Perform up to 10 reps of stand-and-sit exercises, where you rise from a chair without using your arms and then sit down again to complete one rep.
“Also, look for opportunities to do extra movement during regular errands and chores,” says O’Neill. For instance, save some dirty dishes for hand washing, which works your hands and fingers. Wash your car instead of using the drive-through car wash, park farther away at the grocery store (or better yet, walk to the store and carry groceries home, if possible), sweep and mop more, and do simple yard work like weeding, planting pots, and raking.
“There’s a lot you can do to be more active,” says O’Neill. “Exercise doesn’t always have to be intense to be effective, and there are many opportunities in your daily life to sneak in extra movement. You just need to do it.”
That’s advice my grandmother faithfully followed until she passed away at age 100.