The Curious Case of the Active Couch Potato

Judi Ketteler
by Judi Ketteler
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The Curious Case of the Active Couch Potato

Exercise is good for you. Sitting too much is bad for you. There’s nothing new there.

But what about those of us who exercise a lot — and sit a lot?

Let’s say you run 3–5 days a week, 30 minutes–1 hour each time. Perhaps you do some strength training or yoga a few days a week as well. You clearly meet — even exceed — any guidelines for physical activity. But then, you spend most of your other waking hours sitting down at work, on your commute, on your couch after work, you name it.

If this sounds familiar, you just may be an “active couch potato” — a term that refers to people who get their recommended physical activity, but spend a lot of time sitting, usually because they have sedentary jobs.


Sitting too much comes with several risk factors, says Matthew P. Buman, PhD, and associate professor of exercise science at Arizona State University. “Evidence has emerged that sitting does have an independent risk on many health outcomes,” he says. This includes a higher risk for diabetes, a premature death risk and musculoskeletal problems.

What’s interesting is the risk may be independent of how much exercise you get. “People who sit for long periods of time, defined as sitting for 30–60 minutes without stopping, may be at greater risk for a poor health outcome,”  Buman says.


A Lancet study from last year looked at a million people, trying to clarify this risk. “They found that if you are an avid exerciser, the risk for premature death because of too much sitting is quite low,” Buman says. He defines avid as double the 150 minutes/week recommendation, so 300 minutes a week, or almost an hour a day. “But even moderate exercisers have an increased risk. And if you don’t exercise at all, you definitely have a risk.”


Even for those of us who run regularly and rack up the mileage, there is an opportunity to reduce how much we sit. The most harmful type of sitting is the prolonged type, like a cross-country airplane ride. “Sitting for five hours straight appears to be worse than sitting all day long, but getting up and down frequently,” Buman says.

Tips to help you reduce your sitting time throughout the day include:

  • Use a sit/stand desk, which allows you to work sitting or standing. “These types of desks have shown some results in studies. Standing 70 minutes per eight-hour workday may have an impact on overall health,” Buman says.
  • Set reminders on your phone to get up and move around at regular intervals. “It may seem like wasted time to take a lap around the office, but it will make you more productive in the end,” he advises.
  • Take public transportation. “Research shows that people who take public transportation tend to sit less. They may be sitting on the bus, but often have to walk to and from the bus or train.”


The advice Buman likes best is to think of your day as a pie chart. One-third of the time is sleep. That still leaves 2/3 of your day. Of those 16 hours, exercise may only represent a tiny sliver. “If you think about the whole day, the period you consider opportunity for exercise is relatively small. You get in 30 minutes to an hour, but what about rest of day?” Buman says.

It doesn’t necessarily mean exercising more. Rather, it’s about sitting less during the rest of the day, he says. “By moving the dial a little bit, we may be making an impact on our health.”

About the Author

Judi Ketteler
Judi Ketteler

Judi is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. She’s been running for more than 20 years, and has a particular soft spot for doing half-marathons. Her work has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, Runner’s World, Women’s Health and Good Housekeeping. Find her at or @judiketteler on Twitter


12 responses to “The Curious Case of the Active Couch Potato”

  1. Avatar Asri says:

    This is so me. I work out an hour a day 6-7 days a week, but most every other waking minute is spent sitting. It’s something I always knew I should change, but this article has finally motivated me to try to walk around more at work and home.

  2. Avatar Durp says:

    We can lay down and sleep for 8 hours, but we cant sit for 60 minutes. We live in a sad world.

    • Avatar Savannah Johnston says:

      You missed a crucial point. You can sit for 60 minutes — just not 60 minutes *straight*. You can sit nearly as much as you want, in fact — just not uninterrupted.

      As for lying down and sleeping for 8 hours: We can do that because a) Our bodies are supposed to do that; and b) Lying down is not the same as sitting.

  3. Avatar Savannah Johnston says:

    I use an app called Time Out that makes you take breaks from your computer for a specified length of time at specified interval. Currently my “micro” break is 15 seconds every 15 minutes; when the break comes up, I usually try to stand up for the entire 15 seconds. I don’t know if that’s enough to combat the health issues alluded to here, but there’s a huge increase in my comfort level compared to when I don’t use the breaks (or even compared to when I had it set to 20 seconds every 20 minutes). When I don’t use these breaks, my butt is sore at the end of the day. When I do use them, no such discomfort arises; I can theoretically stay at my computer until I drop from exhaustion. It’s amazing how much difference a small change can make.

  4. Avatar Garlic Girl says:

    So I got my glutes up off the couch to stop being lazy and get healthy and yet again they find another way to demine what a person can DO!!! Whatever! Change the work industry and cities transport system then!!!

  5. Avatar Andrew thefreelancer says:

    what are the negative health effects?

  6. Avatar TrekkieLianne says:

    “Sitting is the new smoking” they say. I get it. We are a hunter-gatherer species by evolution who should be tracking animals for food and roaming the savannah in search of our livelihoods instead of working for others who tell us what to do. If I didn’t have to sit at work all day, I wouldn’t, but my productivity depends on it. So thanks for pointing out yet another thing I as the average person is “doing wrong”. LOL

  7. Avatar Kelly LaMore says:

    Great post! When you are young/younger than 50; it is hard to understand what sitting for long periods does to your body and your mental health. Many of us have sedentary or desk jobs, and while we are under a certain age, our bodies heal and bounce back easier and the effects of the sitting don’t stay with us long, or seem not to stay. When you are over a certain age (I will say 50), your body is slowing down every process. Sitting exacerbates most health issues. As we age and health issues become more serious, we tend to want to “take it easy” and become less active. We tend to have people in to do more and more things for us, or we place our selves or our aging parents in a full care facility when they could actually still be doing things for themselves. The most physically and mentally healthy older people I know, get up and move about the house, take two to three walks outside every day, belong to a gym or have an exercise room in their living space. You HAVE to stay active. When you get older and it gets harder to move because everything hurts, even the little walks to and from different rooms in the house or moving about doing basic chores is the difference between a longer healthier life and death! Just keep moving.

  8. Avatar Carla says:

    This is pure Garbage at its best!

  9. Avatar Eclectic Pandora says:

    Articles like this are extremely unrealistic. Right, my boss is totally going to invest in a special desk just for me in an office that’s already got six desks crammed into it and is half the size of my bedroom. He’ll also be totally cool with me getting up all the time and walking around. NOT.

  10. Avatar galivantstom says:

    In this whole thing I find no men ion of strength training. Some, including who run marathons have stressed that I should do a brisk walk every other day and spend at east thirty minutes on the day between walks on strength training, even if it’s bands.

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