The Impact of an Inactive Lifestyle: Physical & Mental Effects of Being Sedentary

For most of us, this is common knowledge, yet somehow, over 41.9% of all American adults are obese. That’s almost half of the adult population, and it’s not slowing down. But at the end of the day, it’s not just the obese who lead a sedentary lifestyle. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a minimum of 150 hours of moderate-intensity activity a week and two days of muscle-strengthening activity per week. What this breaks down to is something like a 30-minute run five days a week and two gym sessions. You might be thinking that’s not very much, but somehow, over two-thirds of the population aren’t meeting the recommendations.


The result of an inactive lifestyle is clear: obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, certain cancers, depression, and anxiety. This list could go on to fill the page. The full-scale impact of our social regression is becoming more and more apparent. 

Your body on exercise

During what you might think of as a simple run, the body is completing hundreds of tasks simultaneously. As you move, blood flow surges through your heart, distributing oxygen-rich blood to your organs and muscles and improving circulation. Simultaneously, brain activity heightens, enhancing alertness and focus, while exercise triggers the release of endorphins, natural mood elevators that alleviate pain and foster a sense of well-being. 

Muscles engage, contract, and stretch in response to movement, gradually strengthening and building endurance over time. Consistent exercise fortifies the heart and lungs, improving their efficiency and reducing the risk of cardiovascular ailments. Metabolism shift burns stored fat cells and regulates blood sugar levels, contributing to weight management and diabetes prevention. 

The benefits of exercise go way beyond alleviating symptoms; it also contributes to overall mental well-being and resilience. Regular physical activity has been linked to improved self-esteem, better cognitive function, and enhanced stress management abilities. 

The mental impact

You may have heard that exercise triggers the release of endorphins. These are natural mood enhancers and pain relievers. They promote euphoria and reduce the perception of pain. Endorphins also increase serotonin levels, which are crucial for mood regulation, and induce feelings of happiness and relaxation. 

Exercise also stimulates dopamine production, associated with pleasure and motivation, enhancing focus and positive reinforcement. Brain-derived neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) increases with exercise, improving cognitive function and memory. 

Norepinephrine levels surge during physical activity, sharpening mental focus. Additionally, exercise promotes neurogenesis, maintaining brain health and preventing cognitive decline. 

This demonstrates, from a purely biological point, the profound impact of exercise on mental well-being and has contributed to the rise of so much research and programs like the  MCHD-clinical mental health counseling that are aimed at addressing both the physical and mental impact of unhealthy lifestyles.

Anxiety and depression

A lack of physical activity can disrupt the delicate balance of neurotransmitters and endorphins we talked about before. Chemicals that are crucial for mood regulation. This disruption can lead to increased feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and many other mood disorders. Research has shown a correlation between sedentary behavior and an increased risk of developing depression. The mental strain of a sedentary lifestyle, combined with the physical health issues it can cause, creates a cycle that only makes feelings of anxiety and depression worse. 

Consistent peer-reviewed findings across the world indicate that physical exercise will decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Studies have even found a higher efficacy for exercise than anti-depressants for treating Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Exercise is in itself medicine. 

This means that so many sedentary and underactive people are seeking help for these common disorders and would have a similar, if not better, chance of mood change in a gym than in a doctor’s office. 

Physical health 

We are all guilty of at least some prolonged periods of physical inactivity. For many of us stuck at an office eight hours a day, it’s hard to avoid. But it can be mitigated, and failure to do so can wreak havoc on your body in so many ways. 

On a biological level, when you’re not moving much, your body’s ability to manage crucial metabolic processes, such as regulating blood sugar levels, controlling blood pressure, and breaking down fat, becomes compromised. This dysfunction increases the risk of developing a range of chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Inactivity can lead to muscle atrophy, where muscle tissue starts to waste away, and bone density decreases, both of which heighten the likelihood of sustaining physical injuries, such as fractures or strains, simply because your muscles and bones are too weak.

These dangers compound with age. As we get older, the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle only increase. The body’s natural resilience decreases even in the most athletic among us. This makes the body far more susceptible to the adverse effects of inactivity. Chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis become more likely and more dangerous. 

Maintaining regular physical activity becomes more and more important as we age, not only to keep our bodies healthy but our minds as well. If you go to any major city in China (and many other Asian countries), you will see hundreds of elderly citizens doing Tai Chi and Qigong in the park. This is not a strenuous workout, but they are still moving and using many different muscles. If you look at the data, older adults in China have a way lower proportion of chronic disease. In fact, adults around the world who live active lifestyles are healthier. The US has the highest rate of multiple chronic diseases in the world, and obesity is twice the OECD average. We are a sick country. 

What you can do

The bottom line: get out there. It’s never too late to start, and if you do, you will feel the effect both immediately and for the rest of your life. Heart disease is the biggest killer in the US, but it doesn’t have to be. The tool to combat it is in your hands. Society is trying to tell you that living an unhealthy lifestyle is okay because it is the majority position; obesity is not normal, being sedentary is unhealthy, and the price is your health. 

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