Are You Sitting Down?
Yes, prolonged chair-time leads to all sorts of health problems.
By Donna Burch
Physicians have been pushing their patients to move more and sit less for decades, but recent research indicates the recommended regime of 30 minutes of cardio exercise, five days a week, may not be enough to counteract a sedentary lifestyle.
Last January, a Toronto meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed 47 studies looking at the relationship between sitting too much and its link to mortality, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.
Researchers found that people who sit for prolonged periods were at increased risk for these conditions – even if they regularly exercised. People who exercised longer and more vigorously were at lower risk of developing these conditions than their more sedentary counterparts, but they were still at a greater risk than those who didn’t sit for prolonged periods.
It seems that research confirms what common sense should have told us: We can’t spend 23.5 hours of our day sitting and sleeping and expect 30 minutes of exercise to keep us healthy.
“I absolutely think the findings are true,” says Dr. Christine Browning from Bon Secours Heart & Vascular Institute. “Your body is similar to a computer. As soon as you sit down, it starts to slow down, and if you sit too long, it goes into hibernation.”
When people sit down, a cascade of processes occurs in their bodies. They burn fewer calories, and their blood circulation slows. Idle bodies produce fewer fat-burning enzymes and, in doing so, their triglycerides go up, their HDL (good) cholesterol goes down and their glucose rises. With less blood flow, their brain circulates fewer feel-good hormones, making them more prone to depression. Sitting too much also is bad for their posture and spine health because it leads to tighter muscles and tendons.
Countless research studies have found that leading a sedentary lifestyle is linked to poor health. A Pennington Biomedical Research Center study estimated the average human lifespan would increase by two years if everyone sat less than three hours a day. A study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the more hours older women spend sitting, the more likely they are to die early from all causes, including heart disease and cancer.
The Toronto study came back with some pretty sobering statistics: When people sat for long periods, they were 24 percent more likely to die than those who sat less. Excessive sitting was linked with an 18 percent increased risk of cardiovascular death, a 17 percent increased risk of cancer death and a 91 percent increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
In general, people who exercised were at lower risk of these conditions than those who did not. However, exercising did not appear to completely negate the effects of prolonged sitting.
So many people work desk jobs, which require them to sit for eight or more hours a day. Americans also live in a technology- and entertainment-driven world, with many spending hours every day either checking their smartphone, surfing online or watching TV.
(A 2014 Nielsen report found the average American spends more than five hours per day watching the tube.)
To counteract the effects of too much inactivity, people need to move even more than once thought, say local physicians.
“We know that exercise has health benefits so we assume the opposite could be true – that if you have more sedentary time, it could be harmful, which this [Toronto] study suggests,” says Dr. Michael Arcarese from Chippenham Hospital’s Levinson Heart Institute and Cardiology Associates of Richmond. “The good news is you can attenuate that effect. It does show that you might need to augment your activity level to get back to the baseline for developing these conditions. The longer the sedentary time, the more exercise you need to do to get back to the baseline.”
Browning suggests doubling the typical recommended amount of exercise from 30 minutes a day, five days a week, to at least an hour a day at least five days a week. (Seven days a week is even better, she says.)
“Two-thirds of cardiovascular disease is preventable through lifestyle and half of that is the activity you get throughout the day,” she explains.
In addition to regular exercise, there are small steps people can take to increase their movement during the day, even if they have desk jobs.
Some workplaces have invested in standing desks or treadmill desks for their employees. These desks allow employees to either stand or walk very slowly while working, increasing their overall calorie burn and activity levels.
“Just by standing to do your typical desk work, you burn 30 percent more calories than sitting,” Browning says.
An inexpensive way to boost your activity level is to work while sitting on an inflatable exercise ball. Commonly sold at any big-box or sporting goods store, using an exercise ball engages one’s core muscles.
“It’s work to sit on those and stay with good posture,” says Dr. Phoebe Ashley from the Pauley Heart Center. “Even that could help.”
Something as simple as taking regular breaks can make a difference. After every 30 minutes to an hour of work, stand, stretch and walk around for a few minutes.
“Even just getting up to talk with a colleague instead of emailing them or instant messaging them gets you more mobile,” Ashley says. Instead of taking a large water bottle to work, use a smaller container so that you’re forced to get up and refill it more often and take more bathroom breaks.
Stand up and pace when talking on the phone.
Two more small ways to increase activity include parking farther away from your destination and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. When you’re watching TV, get up and walk around during the commercials.
A gym membership is not mandatory to live a physically active life. Even simple exercise, like moderate-paced walking, counts.
“Get a Fitbit or pedometer, and make sure to get 10,000 steps in a day,” Browning says. “It helps a person with a sedentary job because it gives them constant feedback throughout the day. Most people tend to think they are more active than they really are.”