Obesity and Sitting

Mary Sweeney, RN - Updated on April 18th, 2023

Obesity Burdens 33% of Adults

Obesity has become one of the biggest health issues in the United States. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), almost 35% of adults and 17% of youth in the U.S. are overweight. It’s been linked to some of the leading causes of death in the U.S. such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Traditionally, it’s been thought that obesity is caused by poor diet and lack of exercise. However, recent research has shown that a sedentary lifestyle and the amount of time spent sitting on a daily basis may be major contributing factors.

The Link Between Sitting and Obesity

A recent study conducted in London has shown that both the amount of time sitting and the amount of exercise you get every week affects your chances of obesity. Those who engaged in low levels of exercise had an 8% rate of obesity, as compared to those who engaged in moderate to vigorous exercise, who had a 4.8% rate of obesity (defined at 4.25 hours per week). After 10 years, the rates were 6.9% for the active group, and 11.9% for the sedentary group. High levels of exercise were associated with a 36% reduced risk of obesity after 5 years, and 37% after 10 years. When you add sitting into the equation, those who exercised the most and sat the least had a 74% lower risk of obesity after 5 years, and after 10 years, 49%.

TV Watching and Obesity

There is a logical link between how much TV you watch and your chances of becoming obese. Essentially, the more TV you watch, the more sedentary you are. The more sedentary you are, the higher your chances of being overweight. Still skeptical? Let’s see what the research says.

The link between TV watching and obesity was established by Harvard University over 25 years ago, leading many health organizations to recommend that children and teens limit TV and media time to no more than 2 hours per day. The Harvard School of Public Health website explains that TV watching could promote obesity by displacing time for physical activity, promoting poor diets, giving more opportunities for unhealthy snacking (during TV viewing), as well as possibly interfering with sleep.

Research has also shown that excessive TV watching or media use in children can be harmful to their development and can put them at higher risk for obesity. Many studies, such as one published by the National Institutes of Health, have found that the more TV a child watches, the more likely they are to be overweight. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, children who have TVs in their bedrooms are also more likely to gain excess weight than children who don’t. Furthermore, there’s evidence that TV viewing rates in childhood predict obesity risk well into adulthood. As "Generation M" (for media) continues to spend more time in front of a screen, rates of obesity in children may rise.

The link between TV watching and obesity isn’t limited to just the children of the world. A JAMA study followed more than 50,000 middle-aged women for 6 years and found that for every 2 hours the women spent watching TV, they had a 23% higher risk of becoming obese, as well as a 14% greater risk of diabetes. In order to combat the effects of excessive TV watching, regardless of the age group, there are now devices that you can connect to a TV or video game that will limit use based on how it's programmed (such as BOB - Screen Time Manager.)

Driving or Riding In A Car and Obesity

Not surprisingly, sitting in a car seems to produce similar results to sitting on a couch or chair. Choosing to drive instead of walking, running, or biking to your destination promotes more of a sedentary lifestyle and has you sitting down longer than you should. It’s a missed opportunity for physical activity! A study done in China compared the rates of obesity in those using a car and those who didn't. Data was collected from 4741 Chinese adults 20 to 55 years old. Those who acquired a car gained on average 4 pounds and had double the rates of obesity. Now, does this mean that you should never drive anywhere? NO! There will often be times where driving just makes more sense. However, consider a few things about alternative modes of transportation:

  • Public transportation: If a bus or subway is an option for you, consider utilizing it on your next trip out. Chances are, you’ll have to walk to the bus stop or train station, and you may have to walk from where you get off public transportation to your destination. These are perfect opportunities to get some steps in and prevent excessive sitting.
  • Walking. If it’s reasonable and safe, walking is a great option to get to and from destinations. Take advantage of the next beautiful day and get outside to enjoy the weather!
  • Biking. If you live in a bike-friendly area, biking to and from work or other destinations is a popular way to stay in shape and avoid unnecessary time in the car. Be sure you’re wearing a helmet and following the rules of the road!

Is Sitting Really Dangerous?

Sitting in a chair may not seem like a dangerous thing to do, but the effects on your health are surprisingly harmful. When you are physically active, you are engaging your body’s muscles, improving circulation by getting your heart pumping, and preventing potentially dangerous plaques from building up in your blood vessels. If you need more convincing, let’s take a look at the research.

According to a study from the University of Cambridge, being sedentary may be twice as dangerous as being obese. The study involved over 334,000 participants for over 12 years and calculated that more deaths would have been prevented by not being sedentary than not being overweight. The lead author of the study, a senior investigator scientist in the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, explains to HealthDay, "Efforts to encourage small increases in physical activity in inactive individuals likely have significant health benefits. The risk reduction was seen in normal weight, overweight, and obese people. We estimated that eradicating physical inactivity in the population would reduce the number of deaths twice as much as if obesity was eradicated."

So, what can you do to ensure you’re getting enough physical activity and optimizing your health? Here are some tips:

  • Find an outdoor hobby. Make it a priority to get outside and do things. Whether it’s going fly fishing, a bike ride along the water, or even a hike in the mountains, outdoor physical activity is an optimal way to prevent living a completely sedentary lifestyle.
  • Think of alternative transportation methods. As mentioned in the previous section, taking a train or the bus will force you to have to walk to your destination at some point during your commute. If public transit isn’t your jam, then consider walking or biking if it is feasible and safe to do so. Be sure you are following all the rules of the road and are wearing the proper safety equipment!
  • Turn off the devices. Above, we talked about the dangers of excessive TV watching and its link with obesity. However, it doesn’t just stop at television. Use of electronic devices during a large portion of the day increases your chances of staying sedentary and not engaging in physical activity. When you’re on your phone for an extended period of time, chances are you’re sitting down. Turn off the phone and get outside – your body will thank you.
  • Consider a standing desk. A large contributing factor to the obesity epidemic is the fact that much of the American workforce sits at a desk for most of the workday. Enter: the standing desk. Many modern workspaces offer the option for a desk that you can comfortably work at while standing. This may increase your productivity by reducing back and neck strain, as well as promoting increased physical activity.

Obesity and sitting are both at epidemic levels in the United States, but it doesn’t have to affect you. Take our tips to heart and feel free to share some of your own tips for staying active in the comments below! For more information and to read about how you can reduce your risk of obesity by adding more movement into your day, check out the resources below. Happy standing!


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