What Is Physical Inactivity?

Definition of Being Sedentary or Inactive

Couch Potato - Inactivity
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Are you physically inactive? Are you sedentary? Sitting can be required or encouraged in many jobs, at school, and social situations. When does it meet the criteria for you to be labeled as sedentary or inactive?

Definitions of Physical Inactivity

The definition of being sedentary or physically inactive is expending less than 1.5 kcal/kg/day in leisure physical activities, according to the National Population Health Surveys of Canada. This is the equivalent of walking a little over two kilometers or 1.3 miles or approximately 3000 steps. For most people, that is a walk of 25 minutes or less.

In the US National Health Interview Survey, adults are classified as inactive if they did not report any sessions of light to moderate or vigorous leisure-time physical activity of at least 10 minutes a day. By that measure, 25% of US adults reported no leisure-time physical activity and can be considered inactive or sedentary.

Pedometer researcher Katrine Tudor-Locke labels anyone who logs fewer than 5000 pedometer steps per day as sedentary or inactive. This is consistent, as most people will log 2000 steps simply in daily activities around the house - going from bed to kitchen to bathroom to couch, etc.

Is Physical Inactivity Dangerous?

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says "300,000 deaths each year in the U.S. likely are the results of physical inactivity and poor eating habits." Physical inactivity raises the risk of death from heart disease, stroke, colon cancer and diabetes.

Studies of sitting time are finding that long periods of inactivity during the day may increase your risks of disease, even if you get the required amount of exercise at some point during the day. Researchers found an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and early death. How Can You Prevent Being Inactive?

In order not to be inactive and to reduce health risks, health authorities such as the American Heart Association recommends moderate intensity exercise for either 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week or a total of 2 hours and 30 minutes per week. 

Walking is an easy activity to add into your day. It can work to break up sitting time and add steps hourly throughout the day, and it can also be done in bouts of walking at break time, lunch time and before or after the workday.

A pedometer or fitness band can show you whether you are getting enough steps so you are not inactive. Many people set a goal of 10,000 steps per day, which is an indicator you have met the goal to reduce inactivity.

Some fitness bands and apps have inactivity alerts that remind you to get up and move when you have been inactive for a period of time. They are useful for people who spend long hours at sedentary jobs or sedentary recreational activities. Moving more often may help reduce the health risks of sitting and physical inactivity.

View Article Sources
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  • Tudor-Locke, Catrine, Bassett, David R Jr. "How Many Steps/Day Are Enough?: Preliminary Pedometer Indices for Public Health" Sports Medicine. 34(1):1-8, 2004.
  • 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, Office of Disease Prevention & Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. updated 10/7/2008. Accessed 10/9/2008.
  • Physical Inactivity, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 22, 2011.
  • Wilmot, E. G., et al. "Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis", DIABETOLOGIA, Volume 55, Number 11 (2012), 2895-2905, DOI: 10.1007/s00125-012-2677-z