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Sedentary behaviors are those that occur during waking hours and have a very low level of activity, such as sitting or lying down. Being sedentary can result in more sitting and less time spent being physically active which can lead to obesity and greater risk for having diabetes and other chronic health problems as an adult (1).

Being Sedentary Vs. Not Doing Physical Activity

kid building with blocks

Saying that “a person sits a lot” isn’t the same thing as saying “a person doesn’t exercise very much.” They are like two separate bank accounts. In one account, you keep track of how much time you spend being physically active and the other account tracks how much time you spend sitting. Just like different accounts can have different amounts, a child can play outside for one hour and put an hour of physical activity into their account; but, if they sit in front of a TV the rest of the day, they still put several hours of sitting into the other account.

As adults, we may know that exercise is important for us too, but we should also include short bouts of physical activity throughout our day (e.g. 5 minutes every hour) beyond just a visit to the gym after work. A gym workout doesn't eliminate the health effects of sitting all day. In one study of healthy adults who met the daily physical activity requirements, sitting and watching TV was still positively associated with a number of health risks (2).

Studies show in the past few years, children and youth are sitting a lot more than they used to and specific populations are at risk such as lower income families, African American and Latino populations (1).

Many states have standards requiring children to receive moderate-vigorous physical activity periods as well as limit sedentary time other than meals, snacks, and naps.

Aren’t Children
Naturally Active?

children reading books

Many preschoolers spend considerable time at organized out-of-home care, such as pre-schools, child care centers, and family child care homes. While these settings provide excellent opportunities to promote physical activity and limit time spent being sedentary (4), studies show that children spend up to 87% of their time in early care and education (excluding naps) being sedentary (5). It is important for parents and teachers to work closely together and ensure children have sufficient activity levels in both home and school settings.

Factors that influence sedentary behavior in the classroom or on the playground include not enough space (indoors or outdoors); bad weather (snow, rain, heat); limited equipment (e.g. must share with other classes) or unsafe or broken playground equipment, lack of teacher involvement (motivation, skill, personality, teaching style); and children who might be uninterested, overweight and or lack motor skills (6).

Preschoolers should not be sedentary for more than 60 mins at a time except when sleeping (3).

What Activities Are Considered Sedentary?

Sedentary behavior is not a lack of a positive health behavior but rather it is itself a negative health behavior

Sedentary activities most often understood are screen time activities such as watching TV, playing video games or sitting at a computer or smart phone. But it can also include other activities like reading, playing cards, driving in a car or bus or sitting at a desk during school or work time. Sedentary activities are those that “do not significantly use arms or legs or provide significant exercise, including, without limitation, sitting, standing, reading, playing a board game, riding in a wagon or drawing.” So while it is important for a child to do a puzzle, sit and build blocks or read a book, these are still sedentary activities and should be broken up with a physical activity at least every 60 minutes.

Excess screen time has a unique set of conditions all of its own beyond obesity, such as  decreased creativity, eye problems, anxiety, depression and negative  associations with learning and other cognitive processes.

child watching TV

What You Can Do

Children become more sedentary as they get older, so early intervention is crucial to establish and maintain a healthy lifestyle in the early years (4)

Requires involvement from both parents and teachers!

  • If weather permits, provide daily periods of outdoor play
  • Provide parent or teacher-led physical activity sessions at home or in preschools- not just free play
  • Teach children movement skills, don’t just expect them to “figure it out”
  • Provide enough materials and working equipment to avoid excessive competition and long waiting periods for sharing
  • Find fun games and activities suitable for all children regardless of weight status, ability, or skill level
  • Avoid elimination games and ensure children are active and inclusive
  • Create opportunities for physical activity during lesson plans or times of transition or waiting
  • Look for indoor activities such as dancing or doing a treasure hunt
  • Allow children who cannot sleep to play quietly during nap time


  1. Lou, D. Sedentary Behaviors and Youth: Current Trends and the Impact on Health. San Diego, CA: Active Living Research; 2014.
  2. Healy, G. N., Dunstan, D. W., Salmon, J., Shaw, J. E., Zimmet, P. Z., & Owen, N. (2008). Television Time and Continuous Metabolic Risk in Physically Active Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40(4), 639-645.
  3. Physical Activity. (2015, June 16). Retrieved February 07, 2018.
  4. Van Cauwenberghe, E., et al. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 16 (2013) 422–426
  5. Pate, R. R., K. McIver, M. Dowda, W. H. Brown, A. Cheryl. 2008. Directly observed physical activity levels in preschool children. J. School Health 78:438-44
  6. De Decker et al. Influencing factors of sedentary behavior in European preschool settings: an exploration through focus groups with teachers. Journal of School Health (2013); 83: 654-661.
Lindsay, A. and Byington, T. 2020, Sedentary Behavior | Don't Just Sit, and Sit, and Sit!, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, FS-20-20

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Also of Interest:

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A Balanced Diet
A balanced diet gives your body all of the essential nutrients it needs to stay active, healthy, and strong. Learn how you can balance your diet to get the energy you need throughout the day.
Buffington, A., Lindsay, A. 2021, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, FS-21-106
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Find links to Federal and State policies and regulations
Lindsay, A. and Taylor, S. 2020, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno

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Healthy Kids Resource Center

A one-stop shop for evidence-based research, resources, curricula, activities and materials that focus on obesity prevention for teachers and parents of young children. It is designed to educate parents and teachers as well as provide the tools needed to teach young children how to live a healthy lifestyle.