Understanding the mindset behind sedentary lifestyles

Employers need to be more proactive about overly sedentary working lives

Most of us understand all too well we need to be less sedentary. But just being told you need to change your behavior is not the answer. Real change can only come when you begin to understand the psychology of sitting, and why we often choose to stay sedentary even when we are offered opportunities or tools to be more active, explains Betsey Banker.

In a recent, independent survey of 1001 British workers, it was found that 87% spent at least six hours of uninterrupted sitting time per day, getting up only for a drink or bathroom visit. The survey provided valuable insights into attitudes about sedentary behaviour and health that should alert employers of readiness for change among their employees.

Apparently, UK workers dislike being forced to sit long hours at work. When asked to choose what sacrifices they would be prepared to make to “sit less at work”, more than a fifth (21.4%) said they would give up access to social media and nearly 13% would give up an entire day’s holiday.

Sitting is a habit

Even though the media is doing its best to warn people of the dangers, for example articles like this sitting is the new smoking) many have yet truly to understand the implications of too much sitting. Similarly, there is a lack of understanding of the many benefits of standing, or the mindset shift that is often necessary to change behaviour.

The result is we’re more likely to laugh off our sitting habit than treat it as a real concern, and we end up with very little motivation to change.

For example, how many of these phrases sound familiar? “Sit down, sit still and pay attention.” “Please, sit down and make yourself comfortable.” “We’re about to get started, please take your seat.” “No, don’t get up.”

Sitting is woven into many common phrases and social norms. When asked, children say they sit because they have to or are told to. For adults, it’s normalised. Expected. Automatic.

Somewhere along the line, the forced sitting common in classrooms and workplaces came to be interpreted as a preference. Now we go out of our way to make sure that we and/or others have “a seat at the table”.

Sitting comes in multiple forms

Because of modern-day technology, our workstyles and lifestyles are abundant in sedentary behaviour. But simply blaming technology oversimplifies the problem.

We’re victims of voluntary sitting just as much as we are of involuntary sitting. Involuntary sitting is what we have no control over; for instance, flying on a plane or driving a car. Or being forced to use a traditional desk for eight hours during the workday.

Voluntary sitting, on the other hand, is what we choose to do even when alternative options exist, such as sitting in the departure gate area while waiting for a flight or ignoring prompts from colleagues to take a walk or a stretch break.

A study shared at a recent International Society of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity conference reinforced this notion of the social acceptance of sitting by showing how infrequently people mention the act.

For instance, imagine you’re shown a photo of an office worker and asked to describe what they’re doing. You might mention that they’re typing on the computer, talking on the phone, writing notes in a journal and so forth. But you probably won’t mention that they’re sitting down.

Choosing a ‘movement mindset’

On a cognitive level, we know that movement is critical to health and wellbeing. But we won’t suddenly become more active just because we’re informed.

The fact that 20 million British citizens are not getting the recommended amounts of exercise is testament to this. Sitting has become so normalised in part because the part of the brain responsible for routine behaviours has made it a habit. We don’t even see choices when confronted with voluntary sitting, and that’s where our mindset shift needs to start.

Small steps to habit change

Our mindset and our habits go hand in hand. Having a “movement mindset” is not about exercise. It’s about acknowledging that small and modest amounts of activity are beneficial and should actively be sought out. It’s a mindset that tells your brain to look for opportunities to make alternative choices all throughout the day. It’s a seemingly small change in perspective that can have an enormous impact.

Here are some practical steps you can put in place, both in terms of encouraging change in your own organisation, with your clients if an OH practitioner, or just in yourself and your own sedentary lifestyle.

In the workplace:

  1. Start with a small, concrete goal. Rather than swearing off sitting, try changing just one routine. For instance, stand for the first minute of your first meeting each day.
  2. Try a walking meeting instead of sitting. Not only can this make meeting outcomes more productive, but it can re-energise you for desk work when you return.
  3. Curb your emailing. Get up and go and talk to a work colleague instead of emailing them
  4. Try a sit-stand desk in the office. You can also try to break up your day with occasional periods of standing

At home:

  1. Change your environmental cues. The spaces where we live, work and play both dictate and reinforce our behaviours. So, move your ironing board to the family room so you are visually prompted to stand and iron while watching TV. Or choose restaurants that you know have bar-height tables
  2. Find someone in your network who can also benefit. Doing things for others often feels even better than when we do them for ourselves. Establish a shared goal with a co-worker, family member or neighbour, then commit yourself to helping them succeed, which in turn helps you accomplish your goal.


It is time to make standing more normative, especially in office and classroom settings. Regular bouts of low level, non-exercise activity, such as walking to a colleague’s desk instead of emailing them, using stairs instead of lifts or even using a sit-stand workstation have been shown to negate the damage caused by sitting for extended periods of time. And as a result you are lowering your chances of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stress.

In your own life, is sitting a preference or is sitting a habit? Once you’ve worked out this in your own mind, start rethinking your opportunities for movement. So, the next time you’re at the airport or in a meeting, try standing up for a little while.

Betsey Banker is wellness manager at Ergotron


Physical Inactivity Report 2017, British Heart Foundation, https://www.bhf.org.uk/publications/statistics/physical-inactivity-report-2017

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