Most of Us Are Still Sitting Too Much. How Can We Sit Less?

People are sitting more and more every year, according to a 15-year survey.

Posted Apr 23, 2019

Butterfly /Shutterstock
Source: Butterfly /Shutterstock

Despite widespread public health campaigns about the detriments of excessive sedentary behavior: Most Americans still sit too much, according to a new study (Yang et al., 2019) published today in JAMA by researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The goal of this research was to establish changes in sedentary behaviors among the United States population from 2001-2016.

Do you sit more now than you did in 2001? As I sit at my computer typing that question, I’m well aware that I spent more time sitting in 2018 than any previous year in my adult life. Like many of my peers, I’m part of the gig economy now and make a living by cobbling together income as a freelance writer/consultant. This line of work requires spending a lot of time in a chair. Yes, I sit too much. And changes in my sedentary behaviors in recent years are representative of current statistics.

How many times in the past year have you felt nudged or nagged to spend less time sitting? We’ve all heard the warnings about sitting too much ad nauseam. Unfortunately, these "sit less" messages don't seem to be working. (Full disclosure: Over the years, I’ve written lots of posts about the brain/body benefits of sitting less. Here, here, here, here)

For this post—instead of finger-wagging or nagging readers to...wait for it... Sit Less! Move More!—I wanted to come clean about my digital-era failure to “sit less” by admitting that I spend way too much time seated in front of a computer screen.

My hope is that by using the comment section of this post as a forum to share personal stories, we can start an open dialogue about road-tested ways readers have found to spend less time on their derrière. If you have any fresh ideas or strategies for sitting less (and moving more), please share the details of how you avoid excessive sedentary behavior in the comment section below.

The recent nationwide study on sitting habits mentioned in the lede, “Trends in Sedentary Behavior Among the U.S. Population, 2001-2016,” tracked the daily sitting behaviors of 51 ,896 people across the United States over a 15-year period.

According to the researchers, this is the first study to document the sedentary behaviors of a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population that included people of all ages and walks of life. For this study, the researchers divided participants into four age groups: (1) Children ages five to 11 (as reported by a parent/guardian), (2) Adolescents ages 12 to 19, (3) Adults ages 20 to 64, and (4) Adults ages 65 and older. 

The authors sum up the conclusion and relevance of their paper: 

"In this nationally representative survey of the US population from 2001 through 2016, the estimated prevalence of sitting watching television or videos for at least 2 hours per day generally remained high and stable. The estimated prevalence of computer use during leisure-time increased among all age groups, and the estimated total sitting time increased among adolescents and adults."

One of two senior co-authors of this study, Yin Cao, is an epidemiologist and assistant professor of surgery in the Division of Public Health Sciences at WUSTL. In a statement, Cao said:

"We want to raise awareness about this issue on multiple levels—from individuals and families to schools, employers and elected officials. Until now, we haven't had data demonstrating the amount of time most Americans spend sitting watching TV or doing other sedentary activities. Now that we have a baseline—on population level and for different age groups—we can look at trends over time and see whether different interventions or public health initiatives are effective in reducing the time spent sitting and nudging people toward more active behaviors."

The researchers speculate that one strategy for helping future generations of adolescents and adults sit less is to promote daily routines and habits for today's children that involve less sitting.

In a statement, the second senior co-author of this study, Graham Colditz, said: "We think a lot of these sedentary habits are formed early, so if we can make changes that help children be more active, it could pay off in the future, both for children as they grow to adulthood and for future health-care spending.” That said, he adds, "How we create public policies or promote social change that supports less sitting is unclear and likely to be complicated."

Colditz points out that if a child lives in a disadvantaged community or neighborhood that is unsafe, parents can't just open the front door and let their kids play outside. "Our environments—the way our cities, our school days and working days are designed—play roles in this behavior that are difficult to change," Colditz said.

The good news is that the findings of this new study provide a valuable baseline of sedentary behaviors that, in the future, will help gauge which public health strategies are most effective for changing sedentary behavior in large populations over the long haul.

If you have any practical advice or specific strategies that help you (and your kids, if applicable) spend less time sitting on a daily basis—please share your insights in the comments below. 


Lin Yang, Chao Cao, Elizabeth D. Kantor, Long H. Nguyen, Xiaobin Zheng, Yikyung Park, Edward L. Giovannucci, Charles E. Matthews, Graham A. Colditz and Yin Cao. "Trends in Sedentary Behavior Among the US Population, 2001-2016" JAMA (First published: April 23, 2019) DOI: 10.1001/jama.2019.3636

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