Dr. James Levine, the director of the Mayo Clinic at Arizona State University says that “Sitting is the new smoking“.
Smoking, once a popular activity, was not recognized as the extreme health danger it was, until many years later. And now sitting may be in the same category.
At first, this sounds ridiculous. But there’s a bevy of studies backing this statement up – and a possible logical explanation for why sitting for long duration is unhealthy.
First, we’ll spoil some of the surprise – it’s not sitting in particular, but extreme sedentary habits that seem to be the risk factor.
Secondly, it appears that being sedentary all day, then hitting the gym is not an effective solution. The extended amount of time sitting is the health risk – and it can’t simply be “un-done” by hitting the gym in the evening.
The Health Risks of Sitting
Study after study has correlated prolonged sitting with increased risk of developing several serious illnesses including heart disease, kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and various types of cancer.
Here’s some specifics:
- Cancer – A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute indicated that sitting for long periods of time increases your risk for colon, endometrial and lung cancer. And this occurred even in physically active individuals. Other studies have linked sedentary habits with colon and breast cancer.
- Heart Disease – The American Journal of Epidemiology found that men and women who sat more than six hours a day died earlier than their counterparts who limited sitting time to 3 hours a day or less. This study also illustrated that physically active individuals still had increased risk – if they spent a good portion of the day sitting.
- Obesity – Studies by the Mayo Clinic have shown that people who avoid sitting can limit weight gain when eating additional calories – by simply standing more, and limiting sedentary behavior.
- Type 2 Diabetes – Type 2 Diabetes is a serious metabolic disorder characterized by high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and a relative lack of insulin. It can also lead to other complications including heart disease and blindness, among other things. Studies have shown that sitting for extended periods effects blood sugar levels and insulin in the body, meaning not only are sedentary people more likely to be obese, but they are also more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
What Happens When We Sit
Ok, so sitting is not good, say the studies. But what’s actually happening when we sit? Why does it have such an adverse effect on health? Firstly, experts aren’t quite sure – it’s a complex puzzle and it’s not possible to examine what’s happening in realtime. But it seems that the problem is the lack of movement – specifically the lack of muscular activity. Muscle activity seems to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body. When those muscles go dormant, these physiological processes stop. In small doses, not a big deal. But we sit now more than ever – TV viewing, computer use at work, video games, and driving automobiles – sitting is at an all time high. All these activities involve minimal muscle activity, and a minimum of energy expenditure (calorie burn).
You might be thinking, I sit all day at work, but I go to the gym or exercise – maybe even every day. That’s still not good enough. Prolonged bouts of sitting have deleterious effects, regardless of whether the individual meets recommended physical activity amounts. Again, it’s the sitting for long bouts that is the issue. This leads us to something being dubbed the “active couch potato” phenomenon. 8 hours of TV watching is unhealthy, even if you cap it off with a 2 hour workout. The 8 hours of sitting is where the damage is occurring.
Inactivity Physiology As we mentioned, researchers aren’t quite sure of what the underlying mechanism is, but they have established there exists a link between inactivity and the processes within your body that handle both sugar and fats. The sugars and fats in the foods you eat are distributed throughout the body via the blood stream. But a lack of muscular activity can cause the processes that harvest these substances from the blood flow to stop. A study notes: “Physiologically, it has been suggested that the loss of local contractile stimulation induced through sitting leads to both the suppression of skeletal muscle lipoprotein lipase (LPL) activity (which is necessary for triglyceride uptake and HDL-cholesterol production) and reduced glucose uptake.”
What’s the solution?
There is evidence that breaking up sitting time can be beneficial. Experts recommend taking a movement break every 30 minutes – stand up, move around, take a short walk if possible.
Another good recommendation is to stand more – the postural muscles used for standing are significant – your quadriceps, gluteals, and hamstrings are some of the biggest muscles in the body – and you use them to stand (and walk).
Sounds too good to be true? It’s backed by research with findings such as this: “Simply reducing inactivity by increasing the time spent walking or standing is a more effective way to help reduce certain health risks than one hour of physical exercise.”
So move more. Here’s some other ideas to help you out. These have another benefit – you’ll burn more calories as well.
While You Are at Home
- Spend less time watching TV, or using the computer – or find an activity to do while you watch TV. A Standing desk at home is a possibility.
- Take a quick exercise break every once in a while – this is very easy to do in the comfort of your home. The possibilities are endless – push-ups, lunges, air squats – easy to do with no equipment – in a minimum of space.
While You Are at Work
- Get more face time with your colleagues – instead of sending that email or making that phone call – talk a walk over to their office.
- Stand or walk for phone calls.
- Walk laps for one on one meetings with colleagues.
- Step away from your workstation every hour and take a 5 minute activity break.
- Try a standing desk – this is simpler than it sounds if you’ve got a counter top, table top or bookshelf of the right height. There’s also complicated options that allow you to have your whole desk raise or lower.
- Treadmill desk – this particular contraption let’s you use a computer workstation and walk at the same time. Our only recommendation is that you test drive someone else’s first – some people experience nausea or motion sickness with these – and it’s an expensive investment.
- Park your car in the farthest spot possible.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Is it really as simple as move more, and more often?
We don’t know. But isn’t this a simple solution?
It’s also important to consider brain health as well. A recent study shows that short walk breaks can help restore normal blood flow to the brain.
Why is this important? Because decreased blood flow to the brain is associated with lower cognitive functioning and increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Products That Can Help You Stand More
Some of the simplest, easy to implement advice is to simply stand more. The first time you do this, your feet and lower back may ache. With time that will improve. But we do recommend the Topo Mat (Buy on Amazon) as a cost-effective solution for any environment – office or home. This amazing mat will drastically reduce any fatigue or discomfort you may experience. By providing “3d terrain” you’ve got an infinite set of foot positions – this helps stave off fatigue.
References and Further Reading
3. Minimal Intensity Physical Activity (Standing and Walking) of Longer Duration Improves Insulin Action and Plasma Lipids More than Shorter Periods of Moderate to Vigorous Exercise (Cycling) in Sedentary Subjects When Energy Expenditure Is Comparable
4. Regular walking breaks prevent the decline in cerebral blood flow associated with prolonged sitting. Carter SE, Draijer R, Holder SM, Brown L, Thijssen DHJ, Hopkins ND.
Tim is the founder of FitAtMidlife.com – an avid gym rat for 30+ years, he’s a reviewer of many, many shoes – and founder of the Speed Bag Gathering – the world’s only gathering of speed bag punching enthusiasts. See more gym reviews at Tim’s YouTube channel.