The advent of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have made it easier than ever to binge-watch your favorite shows. But as tempting as a good “Netflix and chill” session might be, research continues to mount showing the adverse health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. While the impact on older adults’ health can be particularly acute, studies have shown negative effects even on younger people. The good news is that there are simple ways to reduce your sitting time and thereby improve your health.

Recommended activity levels

The CDC recommends that people age 65 and older get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. They note that this can be broken up into 30 minutes, five times per week. Alternatively, senior adults can opt for 75 minutes of activity at a vigorous intensity. In addition, the CDC advises doing muscle-strengthening exercises twice weekly plus activities to boost balance.

The reality, however, is that few older adults get these amounts of exercise on a regular basis. Data collected in 2019 and shared in the 2021 Senior Report from the United Health Foundation found that only 23.1% of adults ages 65 and older were meeting the CDC’s recommendations. There were interesting yet concerning exercise disparities noted based on region, gender, race, education level, and income, which you can read about in the “Behaviors” summary.

These findings are particularly alarming when you consider the potential health and mortality consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. Recently released research underscores some of these issues.

>> Related: Senior Wellness Programs: Good for CCRC Residents & The Bottom Line

Dementia and a sedentary lifestyle

A 2023 study led by researchers at the University of Southern California looked at data collected from older adults participating in the U.K. Biobank, one of the largest and most comprehensive biomedical databases in the world. They wanted to determine if there was a link between a sedentary lifestyle and the risk of developing all-cause dementia in older adults.

The researchers analyzed the data of 49,841 people living in England, Scotland, or Wales, age 60 or older, and who did not have a diagnosis of dementia at the time of wearing a wrist accelerometer to measure their level of activity from February 2013 to December 2015. These people were then followed for an average of 6.72 years after their time wearing the accelerometer to periodically check on their health status.

During the follow-up period, 414 people were diagnosed with all-cause dementia.  Based on the study’s analysis of these people’s level of activity and health outcomes, the researchers found that, among older adults, “there was a significant nonlinear association between time spent in sedentary behavior and incident dementia.”

The team concluded that additional research is needed to ascertain whether the association between a sedentary lifestyle and the risk of developing dementia is causal. These findings are clearly concerning, however.

>> Related: Cost of Dementia Care Can Be an Overwhelming Financial Drain

Older women may be even more adversely impacted

The findings of the 2023  University of Southern California study should perhaps be even more alarming for women, based on recent additional research.

A 2024 study published by epidemiologists from Harvard, Wenzhou Medical University in China, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital looked to determine the impact of a sedentary lifestyle as an independent factor in predicting healthy aging in women. The team defined “healthy aging” as living to be at least 70 years old without experiencing one or more of 11 major chronic conditions and not being cognitively or physically impaired. 

To do this, the research team examined data from 45,176 female Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) participants aged 50 years or older who were free of major chronic diseases in 1992 and who were followed up for 20 years. The sedentary lifestyle measures the study accounted for were the hours spent:

  • Watching television
  • Sitting at work
  • Sitting at home doing something other than watching TV

The study also factored in how much light physical activity (LPA) participants engaged in. For this, they looked at hours of standing or walking around at home and at work.

Their analysis found that the odds of aging healthfully were reduced among the women who were more sedentary. More specifically, they found that an additional two hours of sitting and watching TV per day was associated with a 12% decrease in the chances of healthy aging.

Meanwhile, engaging in two hours of even light physical activity per day was associated with a 6% increase in the odds of aging healthfully. Additionally, the researchers found that replacing one hour of TV time with light physical activity, moderate to vigorous physical activity, or even sleep (for those participants who typically got less than 7 hours of sleep at night) was also associated with improved chances of healthy aging.

>> Related: Why Walkability is Important When Choosing a Senior Living Location

Counteracting sedentary time

You may have heard the analogy that “sitting is the new smoking.” Indeed, mounting research continues to drive home just how detrimental a sedentary lifestyle can be to our health. And with less than a quarter of older adults meeting the CDC’s recommended levels of activity, our country may be facing a ticking time bomb when it comes to the negative impacts on physical and cognitive health.

There is some good news, however. A study published earlier this year looked at the connection between people’s daily step count and all-cause mortality as well as cardiovascular disease. They wanted to determine the minimal and the optimal number of steps needed to counteract a high level of sedentary time.

The researchers analyzed data from more than 72,000 people in the U.K., age 40 to 69, who had participated in the U.K. Biobank study, which has followed over half a million adult Britons’ health outcomes for over a decade. They found that the average amount of sedentary time was 10.6 hours a day, so they classified 10.5 hours or more as “high sedentary time,” and less than that was labeled “low sedentary time.”

The study found that for people with both low and high sedentary time, getting any number of daily steps greater than 2,200 was associated with lower chances of developing cardiovascular disease or dying early. They determined that 9,000 to 10,000 steps provided the most health benefits.

>> Related: CCRCs Help Seniors Stay Active for a Healthier Life

Making choices to avoid a sedentary lifestyle

As this study reveals, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your favorite TV show or reading on a daily basis … as long as you are also moving your body periodically too. Walking is a great way to meet your daily step-count goal while burning calories, managing weight and blood pressure, and boosting bone density too.

And what’s more, you don’t have to get all of your steps at once. You can break your daily exercise up into 15- or 30-minute segments. This could be as simple as parking further away from the store, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or taking a stroll after dinner.

This can be one of the many benefits of living in a retirement community, such as a continuing care retirement community (CCRC or life plan community). For residents with a meal plan, you will naturally be logging steps as you walk to and from the dining hall.

But most retirement communities go a “step” further, providing residents with an array of activities to keep them moving and active. Not only does this mean less sedentary time sitting and watching TV, it also means more steps, more socialization, and likely better overall health!

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