People across Europe are becoming increasingly sedentary, research suggests.
Scientists from King Juan Carlos University in Spain looked at more than 96,000 adults from across the EU.
Between 2002 and 2017, the number of adults that were sedentary – defined as sitting for over four-and-a-half hours a day – rose by 8% from 49.3% to 53.4%.
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Great Britain had among the biggest increase, with its percentage of couch potatoes rising by nearly a quarter (22.5%), compared to just 3.9% in Spain.
Inactivity has been linked to everything from type 2 diabetes and obesity to depression and even certain cancers.
The scientists blamed a rise in technology, with people spending more time on their smartphones or streaming TV shows.
“Sitting for more than four-and-a-half hours per day is associated with an increased risk of suffering from illnesses such as heart disease,” said study author Dr Xián Mayo Mauriz.
Cardiovascular disease, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes, is behind a quarter of deaths in the UK and a third in the US alone.
“Our research indicates the prevalence of sedentary behaviour has increased across Europe and this could have significant implications for the health of all European states,” added Dr Mayo Mauriz.
Research has suggested that 4.4% of deaths in Europe, more than 230,000 a year, can be attributed to an excessive amount of sitting.
Evidence also implies reducing sitting time by around two hours a day lowers the risk of a premature death by 2.3%.
The NHS recommends adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity – like brisk walking or dancing, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity – such as jogging or fast cycling, exercise a week.
‘Inactivity could be attributed to technology and streaming services’
To better understand how sedentary behaviour is changing, the scientists analysed data collected in 2002, 2005, 2013 and 2017 as part of the Sport and Physical Activity EU Special Eurobarometer surveys.
The participants, who had an average age of 50, completed a questionnaire that asked how many hours a day they typically spent being active or sitting.
Results revealed sedentary behaviour is on the rise throughout Europe, with more than half (54.5%) of the participants sitting for over four-and-a-half hours a day in 2017, compared to 49.3% in 2002.
The rate of increase varied between nations, with Germans’ sedentary behaviour rising by 7.4% and the French’s by 17.8%.
This could be put down to “social and environmental changes” like longer commutes, “labour-saving devices” at home and work, or “urban environment inequalities that force people to travel longer distances and live in areas that lack support for active lifestyles”, the scientists wrote in the journal BMC Public Health.
In the age of technology, people may also be spending more time online, playing video games or watching TV, they added.
Perhaps surprisingly, those aged 35 to 44 had the largest increase in physical inactivity, rising by 15.3% from 43.7% to 50.4%.
Men fared marginally worse, with more than half (52.2%) sitting for over four-and-a-half hours a day, compared to 49.5% of women.
In Great Britain specifically, the proportion of sedentary women rose by 16.5% between 2002 and 2017, compared to 25.2% among men.
In Germany, it increased by 15.6% among men, but fell by 1.2% among women.
Studies have suggested highly educated people spend more time sitting, perhaps while at work. Men may reach a higher level of schooling than women, particularly in eastern Europe, according to the scientists.
Older women may also be less sedentary than men their age if they do more housework, the team added.
By relying on the participants reporting their time spent sitting on a typical day, the scientists stressed the results may be an underestimate.
They suggest using smartphone data to more accurately gauge an individual’s activity levels. Smartphones may be part of the problem, however, as well as the solution.
“We propose 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,” said Dr Mayo Mauriz.
“Our findings suggest that in addition to encouraging physical activity, governments should focus on reducing the amount of time people spend sitting per day.”
In 2002, the World Health Organization requested countries develop population-level strategies to reduce high levels of inactivity. No specific targets or strategies were suggested, however.