Why Being Sedentary Is So Harmful to Your Health

Spikes in blood sugar can put inactive people at risk for scary diseases.

Most of us understand this basic health concept: exercising reaps more benefits than staying sedentary. But inactivity can have a more harmful effect on our health than you probably realize; researchers at the University of Missouri recently conducted a study to find out how.

In their effort to determine how inactivity can affect disease risk, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, researchers took a group of healthy, active adults and told them to stop moving so much. Instead of working out every day, the subjects were instructed to cut their number of daily steps in half.

Armed with glucose-monitoring devices, pedometers and activity-measuring armbands, the volunteers’ blood sugar and number of steps were monitored throughout the day in order for the researchers to determine whether a more sedentary lifestyle would influence the body’s ability to control blood sugar levels. Spikes and peaks in blood sugar are tied to the development of both heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The volunteers behaved as they normally would for the first three days, exercising for 30 minutes and totaling about 10,000 steps a day (the American Heart Association’s recommended activity level). During this time period, the volunteers’ blood sugar did not spike after meals.

Then the volunteers embarked on the second part of the experiment, three days during which they put a halt on any exercising and decreased their daily steps to below 5,000. Basically, they behaved as the average American adult would. However, their meals and snacks were the same as the preceding three days, so that any spikes in blood sugar levels could be linked solely to a change in activity and not to consuming sweeter or fattier meals.

And the researchers found exactly what they were expecting: the volunteers’ glucose monitors recorded significant spikes after meals with peaks rising by 26 percent compared with the three active days of the experiment.

While blood sugar spikes after inactivity are normal—unused muscles require less fuel and sugar from blood—the real problem arises when inactivity becomes regular. Researchers in the study hypothesize that over long periods of time, inactivity can generate the physiological conditions that lead to chronic disease.

The surprising part? A sedentary lifestyle puts you at risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease regardless of your weight or diet, so movement is necessary even for the healthiest eaters.

So instead of heading back to your couch to reflect, why not hit the gym for just thirty minutes? Or even walk to work instead of hopping in the car. It could potentially save you from some serious diseases, and chances are, you’ll feel a lot better throughout the day as well.