Sedentary Behavior

Exercise  psychology  has  evolved  from  sport  and health psychologies and has involved the study of psychological  antecedents  (e.g.,  motivational  and other  influences)  and  consequences  (e.g.,  mental health effects) of participation or nonparticipation in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA). It is now widely recognized that a lack of MVPA (inactivity) is a major public health issue. It is also believed  that  similar  health  problems  can  arise from too much sitting (sedentary behavior).

Sedentary is a term often used to describe individuals  with  low  PA  or  not  meeting  a  criterion level  of  PA.  However,  it  is  recommended  not  to define sedentary behavior in this way but instead to define it as sitting or lying behaviors undertaken in waking time. This encompasses behaviors associated  with  the  use  of  technology  (e.g.,  TV,  computer), socializing (e.g., sitting and talking), travel (e.g., motorized transportation, especially car use), and  other  common  sitting  behaviors  (e.g.,  reading).  Some  of  these  are  changing  rapidly,  such  as computer gaming, and may pose significant health risks if sedentary time is excessive. Such risks can occur  even  when  PA  levels  meet  guidelines.  One important issue for psychologists is how to effect behavior  change—that  is,  to  help  people  sit  less. This is different from “moving more” at the level of MVPA.

Little research has taken place on the psychology of sedentary behavior. It has been found that sociodemographic  (e.g.,  social  class),  behavioral (e.g., smoking) and environmental (e.g., having TV in bedroom) variables are all associated with screen time  (TV  and  computer  use),  but  no  consistent psychological  correlates  consistently  emerge  from such analyses. Psychology may operate indirectly, such as through the negotiation of use of electronic equipment in the home or parents discussing rules about  screen  use  for  their  children,  but  few  data exist  showing  consistent  psychological  correlates of sedentary behavior in young people or adults.

Typical theories used in exercise psychology to help explain participation in PA are social cognitive theory  (SCT),  theory  of  planned  behavior  (TPB), and  the  transtheoretical  model  (TTM).  These may  not  necessarily  be  appropriate  for  the  study of  sedentary  behavior.  Behavioral  choice  theory has been used in sedentary behavior research and suggests that behavior is a function of the ease or difficulty  of  access  and  availability  of  sedentary pursuits and the reinforcement value (e.g., enjoyment)  of  such  behaviors.  Access  and  availability are likely to be high for many sedentary behaviors. The enjoyment of some sedentary behaviors, such as computer games, could also be high. This might make  sedentary  behavior  reduction  a  significant challenge.

Anecdotally, sedentary behaviors seem to be as much about “habit” than conscious or deliberate decisions. Health behavior change can be achieved in  one  of  two  ways.  There  is  the  “deliberative route,” where people use thoughts and conscious processing  to  arrive  at  decisions  and  behaviors. However,  there  is  also  the  “automatic  route,” whereby people are influenced in their behavior by environmentally  cued  responses,  habit,  and  little or  no  conscious  processing.  For  example,  when entering a room with chairs, little or no conscious processing  is  involved  in  sitting.  No  “decisions” are  made;  most  people  just  sit.  Habit  will  be clearly associated with a behavior if everyday contexts remain stable and are regularly encountered. Clearly,  this  is  the  case  for  sitting.  On  the  other hand, there may be contexts, particularly if people become  more  aware  of  the  health  consequences of   prolonged   sitting,   where   more   conscious thoughts  are  used  to  stand  and  move.  Promoting such  behaviors  may  be  beneficial.  In  short,  psychologists may wish to account for more habitual processes in sedentary behavior than has typically been the case for PA. This might involve promoting less sitting with signs and reminders.

Interventions to reduce sedentary behavior have been reported almost exclusively on young people. The  overall  effect  is  small  but  meaningful.  The small  effect  may  reflect  sedentary  behavior  being a challenging behavior to change, driven by strong habitual tendencies and social norms.

Approaches  to  change  sedentary  behaviors  in young people have generally included educational and  family  interventions,  with  the  former  aiming to  teach  children  about  sedentary  behaviors  (e.g., TV viewing) and how to seek alternatives. This is best  illustrated  by  the  Planet  Health  program  in the  United  States,  where  children  study  a  “power down”  TV  reduction  element  alongside  other aspects  of  health.  Other  intervention  approaches have  included  the  use  of  TV  and  computer  time budget monitors. With adults, studies are emerging that tackle sitting in the workplace, such as through the introduction of standing desks or goal setting.

Sedentary behavior has become a popular area of research although the number of psychological studies is currently small. However, as we move to greater use of interventions, the role of psychology should develop. But much more needs to be known about  how  we  might  change  such  behaviors. This  is  at  a  time  of  an  environmental  onslaught that  encourages  and  reinforces  such  behaviors. Psychologists will need to explore what is realistic for sedentary behavior change, how best to prompt and  reinforce  sedentary  behavior  change,  and  to consider what theories or perspectives work best. Moreover, more knowledge on how to communicate this “new” health message is also needed.


  1. Biddle, S. J. H., Gorely, T., Mutrie, N., & Blamey, A. (2012). Interventions for physical activity and sedentary behavior. In G. C. Roberts & D. Treasure (Eds.), Advances in motivation in sport and exercise (Vol. 3, pp. 357–386). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Maniccia, D. M., Davison, K. K., Marshall, S. J., Manganello, J. A., & Dennison, B. A. (2011). A meta-analysis of interventions that target children’s screen time for reduction. Pediatrics, 128(1), e193–e210.
  3. Owen, N., Healy, G. N., Matthews, C. E., & Dunstan, D. W. (2010). Too much sitting: The population health science of sedentary behavior. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 38(3), 105–113.

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