Do you spend most of your working life at a desk? Do you relax by binge-watching the latest “it” series? Is your favourite avatar a sloth?

No shaming here: Lots of us have desk jobs. There’s a ton of good TV out there. And sloths are kind of cute. But you still might want to take a close look at your activity level. Here’s why.

You may already know that such a “sedentary lifestyle” isn’t good for your health. But did you also know that it can actually cost you money? That’s because inactivity is a proven health risk, according to the World Health Organization. And proven health risks tend to make your life insurance and health insurance more expensive. If you’re a currently healthy Canadian couch potato, you likely don’t pay more for your insurance now. But you could later on, if you develop a health issue associated with inactivity. Think of conditions like:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity-linked knee and back issues
  • Sleep apnea

What difference can poor health make to your insurance rates?

Chris Poole, CFP®, CLH®, CHS™, is a Sun Life advisor. He explains it this way: “Let’s say you have a normal build and a reasonably normal medical history. But enter COVID and the shift to working from home. You’re now walking maybe 10m from the kitchen table to your desk. You’re sitting all day in front of a computer and all evening in front of a TV. Feeling stressed? Maybe you’re eating waffles for breakfast, pasta for lunch and take-out for dinner, to take the edge off. Today, you might actually pay totally normal insurance rates, because this lifestyle hasn’t yet caught up with your health.” 

“But suppose, with the same build and medical history, you bike 30K three days a week. You hike on the weekend. And you eat a super-healthy diet. You might qualify for preferred rates based on your medical history, but you probably still pay totally normal rates.”

It’s once that sedentary lifestyle starts affecting your health that you start to feel the difference.

“In general, a person in poor health can expect to pay a decent chunk more for life insurance than a healthy person,” Poole says. How big a chunk? With term life insurance, for example, potentially 50% to 400% more. That means a standard premium rate of $100/month could increase to $150-$400/month, based on your medical and lifestyle history alone. 

“With higher premiums, you may not be able to afford as much insurance as you need,” Poole continues. “If your health is sufficiently compromised, you may not be able to get insurance at all. That could be due to certain chronic medical conditions. It could be issues your doctor is looking into. It could even be ongoing unstable readings for things like blood pressure or blood sugar. A sedentary lifestyle today can often lead to poor or uncertain health in the future. When that happens, your premiums start going up and your options become very limited.”

If you’re a couch potato, Poole says this means a couple of things:

  • “While your business and assets are growing, your health may be declining. “Often, we see well-off business owners and families wanting very large insurance policies as a tax strategy. Life insurance can make a lot of sense for their company or business succession plans. But if their lifestyle has damaged their health, they may discover they can’t get an underwritten policy. It doesn’t matter how much they are willing to pay. Your health needs to support the risk an insurance company is willing to take on. If it doesn’t, even the wealthiest Canadians can’t get the best types of coverage. 
  • “Insurance is about protecting what you have today. But it’s also about planning for the future. In five, 10 or 20 years, the risk to your family, business or estate could be much bigger. With a growing family and business, it makes sense to buy insurance while you’re still healthy enough to get it. Yes, getting insurance early helps keep your future costs down. But it also gives you flexibility. Looking ahead, you can build in tax strategies now that could prove exceptionally valuable down the road.”

How can you change a sedentary lifestyle?

So, how can you avoid the issues that will affect your finances as well as your health? Back to the WHO: “The WHO states that people who are insufficiently active have a 20% to 30% increased risk of death compared to people who are sufficiently active.” For adults under 65, “sufficiently active” means at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. It could also mean at least 75 to 150 minutes of intense activity. Or it could mean some combination of the two. 

That sounds like a lot! But you could hit the mark with a brisk, half-hour walk, five or six times a week. (Brisk meaning a steady pace that lets you talk but not sing.) Other common forms of moderate aerobic physical activity:

  • doubles tennis
  • biking 6.5 km in 15 minutes
  • walking up and down stairs for 15 minutes
  • swimming laps for 20 minutes

Intensive aerobic activities include:

  • singles tennis
  • aerobics
  • running
  • cross-country skiing 

As well, the WHO recommends moderate (at least) all-body muscle-strengthening activities two or more times a week. According to NHS Health Scotland, strength workouts can include:

  •  yoga, tai chi or Pilates
  • lifting weights
  • using resistance equipment at the gym
  • sing your body weight for resistance – sit-ups, push-ups, lunges or squats (planks, too)

And that’s not all. The WHO also recommends we replace as much couch or desk time as possible with any kind of exercise. Even light activity – like grocery shopping, dusting or washing the car – is healthier than sitting. 

Many of us can manage an aerobics class or a lunchtime walk. But with a desk job, it can be tough to get up frequently to stretch and walk around. You might have a project deadline to meet. Or you might find yourself “in the zone” – your mind is working and the ideas are flowing. The last thing you want to do is stand up and interrupt your train of thought. But before you know it, one, two or even three hours have passed and you haven’t left your chair. If you work this way, staying active can be a real challenge. A standing desk can help, as can a regular “get moving” reminder on your phone or watch. If you’re setting a meeting agenda, build in frequent stand-and-stretch breaks, or make it a walking meeting. 

But what if you’re retired and your desk days are behind you? If you replace your seated work with seated hobbies like reading, TV, knitting or web-surfing, you’re still at risk. In fact, retiring raises your chances of being sedentary. According to the National Institute of Health, retired people spend up to 29% more time than working people watching TV. They also spend 10% less time in moderate to vigorous physical activity.

How can you stay active in retirement?

So, improve your odds by aiming for the same activity levels as younger adults. Use some of your newly free time for active hobbies like hiking, gardening, swimming or mall-walking. Dance with your grandchildren. If you’re a reader, swap some paper books for audiobooks you can listen to as you walk. Or explore the wide range of fascinating podcasts now available. (Whatever you’re listening to, though, keep aware of your surroundings, for safety’s sake.) Park farther away from the mall entrance. And simply walk around the house while you’re on the phone or waiting for the kettle to boil. 

As you get older, preventing falls also becomes a priority. Along with the recommended moderate and/or intensive activity, the WHO advises adding balance-building activities. This can be as simple as standing on one foot while you brush your top teeth, and on the other while you brush the bottom ones. (Try it; it’s not as easy as it sounds!) Exercises that strengthen your core muscles also improve your balance. Do them at least three times weekly to improve your functional fitness and help prevent falls. 

“People buy insurance with their health,” says Poole. “They use their money only to pay the premiums.” Sure, our ancestors kept active by chasing and raising their food. But most of us don’t live that way anymore. And we can still keep our bodies and minds healthy by staying active. By making changes to your lifestyle now, you can help reduce the risk of paying more for your insurance premiums later. And in so doing, you can help keep your finances in good shape, too. 

Who can help answer your questions about insurance?

A Sun Life advisor can help you learn more about how life and health insurance works and what kind of coverage is the best for you. Find an advisor

Do you already know what kind of insurance you need? Get a quote.


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This article is meant to provide general information only. Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada does not provide legal, accounting, taxation, or other professional advice. Please seek advice from a qualified professional, including a thorough examination of your specific legal, accounting and tax situation.