Sorry Europe, You’re Sitting More Too, Study Finds

Customers sit outside a cafe in Rome in May after Italy began easing coronavirus restrictions. (Cecilia Fabiano /LaPresse via AP)

(CN) — Contrary to previous studies that found Europeans haven’t been sucked ever more into sedentary lifestyles, a new study says Europeans, just like Americans, are spending more time sitting – the posture of the digital age.

The study found the percentage of European adults spending more than four and a half hours a day sitting increased by about 5% between 2002 and 2017, suggesting that a growing number of Europeans are becoming less active as they spend more time on smartphones and computers.

Researchers did not look at what’s happened in Europe since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in February, which forced hundreds of millions of Europeans into monthslong lockdowns where there was not much else to do but sit and wait. Health experts are warning the pandemic may increase a number of other health risks, among them inactivity.

The study’s findings raise concerns that a proliferation of inactive lifestyles among Europeans may contribute to health problems such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even mental health problems.

The study by researchers at the King Juan Carlos University in Spain was published Tuesday in BMC Public Health, a peer-reviewed open access medical journal.

The research was based on data collected from 96,004 people by Eurobarometer, an agency that does surveys in European Union states.

Two previous studies looked at Eurobarometer data about the number of people spending seven and a half hours or more a day sitting and found that the rate of inactivity was stable or had declined among Europeans.

The new study, though, drilled into data on a middle group of people who said they spent between four and a half and seven and a half hours a day sitting. In analyzing that set of data, the study found substantial increases in “sedentary behavior,” a term used to describe a growing field of research into the health effects of just sitting on one’s haunches for much of the day.

Similarly, studies in the United States and elsewhere have found that people are spending an increasing amount of time sitting. Many health experts are concerned about this trend though there is a rigorous scientific and medical debate over whether sedentary behavior is as baleful as some studies suggest and about what people, workplaces and governments should do to counterbalance increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

Xián Mayo Mauriz, a lead author and professor at the Center for Sport Sciences at the King Juan Carlos University, said the rise in sedentary behavior is likely due to Europeans spending more of their lives in front of screens.

“The observed increase in the prevalence of physical inactivity could be attributed to people increasingly interacting with technology such as smartphones and streaming services during work and leisure time,” he said.

The study found large differences from country to country within the 28 EU nations surveyed, with men generally being more sedentary than women (52.2% compared to 49.5% in 2017) and younger people more inclined to sit for longer stretches than other age groups.

In 2002, 49.3% of those surveyed spent more than four and a half hours a day sitting and that increased to 54.3% in 2017, the study said. Great Britain recorded the biggest jump, with 22.5% more people spending more than four and a half hours sitting a day; France saw an increase of 17.8%, Germany 7.4% and Spain 3.9%, the study found.

Among people aged between 18 and 24, 58.3% were found to be physically inactive compared to 55.6% of those aged 65 and over. But the group showing the largest rise in inactivity were those between the ages of 35 and 44, with a nearly 7% increase between 2002 and 2017, rising from 43.7% to 50.4%.

The study urged European policymakers to pay more attention to the harms prolonged sitting can cause and do more to get Europeans onto their feet. Around the world, governments tend to encourage physical activity but are largely silent when it comes to encouraging policies that break the habit of sedentary behavior, according to the study. Experts say standing more at work desks, taking breaks and reducing work hours are ways to counteract too much sitting.

“Our findings suggest that in addition to encouraging physical activity,” Mauriz said, “governments should focus on reducing the amount of time people spend sitting per day.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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