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Spending too much time sitting? Here’s what you can change

You can probably recall a time – or are currently going through a time – where much of your behaviour is dictated by a school bell.

Signalling the beginning of class, the bell prompts you to take your seat. But, while your brain is active as it takes in each lesson, your body is not.

A new study, conducted by Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), has shown that Australian teenagers spend more than two-thirds of their day sitting – and lead author, Dr Lauren Arundell, says that class time accounts for the highest percentage of that.

‘Our data suggests that the school timetable is an important contributor to adolescent sitting patterns,’ Dr Arundell explains. In fact, the study shows students spend 75% of class-time sitting.

This carries significant health impacts for teenagers, that Dr Arundell says go beyond what you might expect. Emerging evidence suggests that sitting for extended periods of time is detrimental not only to physical health, but also social and mental health.

How much of your day do you spend in a chair? Once you start to crunch the numbers, it can get pretty scary.

Sitting can’t be that bad… right?

Unfortunately, sedentary behaviours don’t offer a bright outlook for anyone’s health – regardless of age. It can have real and damaging effects.

Physically, research shows that prolonged and unbroken periods of sitting can lead to:

With regard to mental health, a study with over 10,000 participants found that ‘among those with lower physical activity levels, a sedentary lifestyle might have an important role in the incidence of mental disorder.

A separate meta-analysis found a link between sedentary behaviour and an increased risk of depression.

Dr Arundell also ran a study that found, ‘Adolescents who engage in high levels of sedentary behaviour may feel less connected to the outside world and be more likely to have poorer social connectedness and engage in behaviours that can be performed alone.’

Sedentary activities like screen-time, computer and video game use and homework are highlighted as having the highest negative effects on social connectedness.

‘Conversely, evidence also shows that kids who sit less and move more have better academic outcomes,’ she says.

Dr Arundell also explains, ‘Teens who break up their sitting have lower diabetes risk factors than peers who remain sitting.’

'Our data suggests that the school timetable is an important contributor to adolescent sitting patterns.'

Dr Lauren Arundell,
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University

Do schools need to give students more opportunity to move?

Dr Arundell says it’s her hope that this study can help determine the times of day where interventions are needed to get teenagers out of their seats and moving around.

‘The introduction of standing or active class lessons, where students are encouraged to stand and move around while completing their work, can be an effective way of getting students to sit less and move more at school,’ she says.

However, the responsibility doesn’t just fall on schools. It’s important to analyse your sitting habits outside of the classroom too.

‘We also need to look at ways to make homework and recreation time less sedentary, as teenagers spend almost three-quarters of the evening period between 6pm and 10pm sitting,’ Dr Arundell says.

She explains this could be achieved by incorporating group or creative homework activities that require movement.

How can you change your sitting habits?

‘While there’s no specific target for a healthy amount of sitting time, Australian guidelines recommend that youth limit their recreational screen time to less than two hours per day and break up periods of sitting as often as possible,’ Dr Arundell says.

‘At the moment less than one in three teenagers are meeting that goal.’

Luckily, there are many things you can do – even if you teacher won’t let you walk around the classroom every half hour.

‘Teens are typically driven to school, sit at school, driven home, do their homework, and then watch TV or play video games and go to bed,’ Dr Arundell says. If you’re looking to make changes, these are some great places to start.

If you’re close enough to school, try walking instead of being driven, or stand up on public transport rather than sitting down.

If you typically get home from school or work and like to veg on the couch, try breaking up your sitting time by walking around after each show finishes (it might even be an ideal time to help your family prepare dinner – brownie points guaranteed).

It’s important to be  physically active too – doing 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each day of the week can improve your physical, social and mental health as well as help your academic performance. Plus it’s a great alternative to sitting!

Dr Arundell also notes that the ubiquity of personal devices can be a key reason adolescents spend too much time sitting. If you think that might be the case for yourself, think about popping your smart devices away once you’re home – you might even find you become more satisfied with life.

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Dr Lauren Arundell
Dr Lauren Arundell

Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University

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