One Week of Sedentary Behavior Lowers Life Satisfaction

Recently, a group of researchers decided to try a rather unique health intervention – one designed to decrease people’s life satisfaction.

Why would health researchers ever do something like that when they’ve dedicated their work to making people healthier and happier? In this case, the idea was to learn more about the relationship between sedentary behavior and life satisfaction.

Here’s how the study worked. Researchers from University of Mississippi designed a one-week health intervention – or unhealth intervention, maybe – in which participants were told to stop exercising altogether and to limit their movements to 5000 steps or less each day. For comparison, there was also a second group of people who continued to exercise and move around as normal.

Among the group who cut back on exercise, the effects of becoming sedentary were immediate: at the end of the week, they reported significantly lower life satisfaction. In fact, their score on the questionnaire researchers used to measure life satisfaction went down by 31 percent on average!

What this shows is that activity levels appear to have an immediate and direct impact on happiness. Becoming sedentary can precipitate a real decline in life satisfaction.

Previous research has shown that high levels of sedentary behavior – essentially, activities like watching TV or reading that are done while sitting or lying down – are worse than a simple lack of exercise. For example, one study found that low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary both independently harm life satisfaction. That is, someone who isn’t very physically active but doesn’t engage in too much sedentary behavior will on average have higher life satisfaction than someone who isn’t physically active and also engages in high levels of sedentary behavior.

The flip side of this is that encouraging people to spend less time sitting can actually improve people’s quality of life, even if those people don’t go so far as to actually exercise. A 2016 study found that interventions that discourage sedentary behavior tend to be more effective at reducing people’s sitting time than interventions that encourage physical activity.

There are many questions that remain to be answered about why sedentary behavior has the mental health implications it does and how sedentary behavior is similar to and different from mere lack of exercise. One thing that’s becoming increasingly clear, though, is that if you want to live life to the fullest, you might have to stand up and move around.

Image: Flickr/Evil Erin


  1. Ed on March 25, 2017 at 10:13 am

    While I can understand the general point that too much sedentary behavior is bad, some of these findings seem really weird to me.

    What about people like me who are avid readers and film buffs (I can take or leave most regular broadcast TV)? To us, getting through a couple of good books while on vacation or finally finding a copy of that rare Chinese film we always thought we’d like ARE wonderful, fulfilling activities.

    Balancing activities done while sitting with more exercise sounds good, and I recognize that there are those who derive the most enjoyment in life from vigorous physical activities (sports, hiking, martial arts, etc.)

    But I’d like a little more explanation of the benefits of a relative lack of both physical and mental activity (aside from periods of recovery from general over-stimulation, of course). What would the person without sedentary pleasures or exercise be doing? It sounds kind of zombie-like to me.

    • Neil Petersen on March 27, 2017 at 2:25 pm

      I agree with you that there’s probably a lot of difference between various sedentary activities. As I see it, the main argument from these findings is that while sedentary activities can be fulfilling and rewarding, people are generally happier with a minimum dose of physical activity — no matter how much they enjoy reading or watching films.

      Of course, the big question is why this is true, and the studies that have been done so far haven’t homed in on the exact mechanism that links sedentary behavior and life satisfaction. So as far as wanting more explanation, I’d guess that most people (including the people who research this for a living) are with you on that one! 😉

  2. Margo S. on March 30, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    Link to the study doesn’t appear to work.

    • Neil Petersen on April 3, 2017 at 3:02 pm

      Thanks — fixed.