Health & Wellness Articles

Are You an Active Couch Potato?

Taking Steps to Stay Healthy Despite a Sedentary Lifestyle

My life has always been full of movement. As a fitness coach and former owner of a personal training business, I know the importance of being active throughout the day and have never been concerned about my activity level. Even with many of my working hours spent at a desk, I make sure to take several breaks from my desk throughout the day, walk up and down the stairs of my colonial home often, and when the dog begs to be walked, I often comply. You can imagine my shock, then, when the pedometer built into my new iPhone 6 showed me how often I was not meeting the recommended 10,000 steps a day.
If a wellness professional like myself struggles to get in enough daily steps, how do the rest of you do it? Is it possible to accumulate 10,000 steps a day, especially while eight hours of most days are spent working? More importantly, does it really matter? If we’re getting to the gym most days of the week, isn’t that enough to protect our health, even if we fall short on the step counter?
Curiosity turned to alarm when I began noticing several research articles in my professional journals stating that excessive periods of sedentary behavior can be detrimental to one’s health, independent of achieving the recommended amounts of daily physical activity.
It seems that despite an increase in individuals exercising, we have become a nation of couch potatoes! Even if you rarely sit on your couch in front of the TV, there is still a good chance you have little accumulated movement throughout the course of the day aside from visits to the gym. There’s even a new term for this phenomenon: the Active Couch Potato.
Sedentary behavior refers to prolonged sitting, lying or reclining quietly, or engaging in any activity that requires little or no muscle movement.  When we look at how most of us spend our days as compared to past generations, it is apparent how a steady decrease in daily movement has happened.
Generally speaking, most people spend significantly more time in cars and sitting in traffic than in years past. We participate in more home-based entertainment such as television, Netflix, video games, online shopping and browsing social media sites. Our jobs require little if any physical exertion. Modern conveniences such as automatic garage door openers, remote controls, kitchen appliances, electronic lawn mowers, and even robotic vacuum cleaners, allow us to minimize movement to get chores done. Children are also moving less than in the past as schools cut back on the allocated time for physical education and recess. It’s no wonder we have an obesity epidemic in this country!
Furthermore, the risks of this sedentary lifestyle go far beyond weight gain. Researchers are discovering that sedentary behavior increases our risk for many diseases and early death.
Sitting on our behinds all day increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes, and possibly colon, breast and endometrial cancers. Even those who don’t wind up sick may end up with muscle degeneration. Tight necks, shoulder and back muscles, weak abs, poor posture, and tight hips will eventually lead to decreased mobility, which increases the propensity for falls later in life. Prolonged sitting has also been linked to a slowing of blood circulation, swollen ankles, varicose veins and dangerous blood clots.
In light of such scary statistics, it is important to remember that there is a silver lining. There are easy ways to increase movement throughout the day. Could these tips also help ward off the detrimental health effects of daily prolonged physical inactivity?
A mounting body of evidence suggests yes! Replacing prolonged sedentary time with multiple short breaks can contribute to improvements in blood pressure, waist circumference, triglycerides, glucose metabolism, and insulin and lipid levels. The great news is that these benefits occur even if the activity level of the break is light.
Along with these longer-term health benefits, I can tell you from personal experience that taking short movement breaks can do wonders for your mood almost immediately. My muscles feel less tight, I am more awake and alert and my productivity tends to increase when I add in several movement breaks throughout my workday. To increase your own movement and decrease prolonged periods of sedentary behavior, try incorporating any of the 16 activities below into your day. Keep in mind that when you are active, you feel more alive and tend to get more done in less time, meaning you might be able to do several suggested activities as time goes on. Together, we can create a new way of staying healthy by moving throughout our days!
  • Set an alarm on your phone or computer to remind you to get up from your desk every 60 minutes.
  • Walk down the hall to a colleague’s office rather than using text or email.
  • Keep a smaller water bottle on your desk so that you will need to go refill it more often.
  • Take the stairs whenever possible.
  • Park your car further away from the location you are headed to.
  • Stand while talking on the phone.
  • If using a cordless or mobile phone, walk while talking on the phone.
  • March in place or do light calisthenics during TV commercials.
  • Ban the use of drive-thrus.
  • Increase the number of times per day you walk the dog.
  • Take short walks during lunch breaks or at the end of the day after dinner.
  • Instead of sitting in a conference room, hold walking business meetings.
  • Reserve aisle seats on planes so you can get up and walk often without disturbing others.
  • If possible, pump your own gas, or get out of the car and march in place while it’s being filled.
  • Get some books on tape and walk the treadmill or outside while ''reading.''
  • Wear a pedometer or accelerometer—they are highly motivating!


Starkoff, Brooke and Elizabeth Lenz. ''Break It Up; Improving Health by Breaking Up Continuous Bouts of Sedentary Behavior.'' ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 2015; Volume 19: 14-18.

Healy, GN, Dunstan DW, Salmon J. et al. ''Television time and continuous metabolic risk in physically active adults.'' Medicine Science Sports Exercise. 2008; 40(4):639-45.

Journal of the American College of Cardiology. ''Screen-Based Entertainment Time, All-Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events,'' accessed June 2015.

The New York Times. ''The Hazards of the Couch,'' accessed June 2015. 

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Member Comments

  • Good suggestions.
  • Thank you! Today’s activity watches will alert you every hour to get moving. One time my Fitbit alerted me that it was “step o’clock”.
  • Excellent article ...... a good reminder to get up and move around!
  • I do what I can but many of these do not apply to me and I am highly limited in mobility. Most of my exercise things are from things I have to do - yard work, painting and scraping, planting and weeding and wood working...etc.

    I'm nearly 70, I have artificial leg bones, hips a shoulder and ribs removed. I'm COPD from congestive heart failure, I spent 5 1/2 years in a chair but walk now despite what the "experts" said. I would like to see articles for the mobility limited people. I sure am not going to run a marathon, not soon anyway, with rest breaks I can walk about a mile and I do. That s about the best I can do now.
  • Great tips. Thanks
  • I like to keep moving even in sedentary situations. I see some new ideas I'm going to try!
  • Speaking from experience her tips really work. When I was working the printer in my office never worked so I had to get up to pick up what I printed and that was good. Still take every opportunity to walk and my activity tracker reminds me to move if I've been sitting for an hour and I don't like to see that reminder so will walk to get it to go away. Getting in at least 10,000 steps/day is a streak I don't want to stop and rarely miss that target. Even if weather is bad, dancing around the house is a fun way to get in some movement.
    We can do this!
  • I have a Fitbit Blaze that has the ability to remind you every hour to get at least 250 steps. I have mine set for 13 hours which if I do the 250 per hour would give me 3250 steps just from hourly walking. I have been trying to get steps in for each of the 13 hours for the past 14 days. My normal 5000 steps a day before is now up to almost 8000 per day. I feel better and I have more desire to get things done. By the way, I am 66 years old. I am going to keep this up and may try to increase the time periods per day. Great article reinforcing what I am finding out on my own.
  • Yeah, I wish corporate America complied with the "walk down to a co-worker's desk and talk instead of IMing" idea that's always pushed around. My days are productivity driven. If I take the time to walk to a desk instead of messaging, I never meet my goals.

    I do take a lot of the other suggestions, though. I get in walks on my breaks and try to fit in movement where I can.
  • I have set a goal of 6,000 steps per day. Many times I go beyond that number. Some days I do not get close. But those are the days when my body tells me to take it easy.

About The Author

Ellen Goldman Ellen Goldman
Ellen Goldman founded EllenG Coaching, LLC to help individuals struggling with health issues that can be impacted by positive lifestyle change, such as weight loss, stress management and work-life balance. As a national board-certified health and wellness coach and certified personal trainer, Ellen holds a B.S. and Masters in physical education and is certified by ACSM, AFAA and Wellcoaches Corporation. She is also the author of "Mastering the Inner Game of Weight Loss." You can visit her at