Sitting, is it dangerous to your health?
March 26, 2013

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How many hours a day do you spend sitting? It may be a lot more than you think. All that time you sit at work, in traffic, online or watching TV adds up. And that’s adding up to some serious health issues for many of us.

More and more research points to the same conclusion. The more time a person spends sitting every day, the more likely he or she is to have health problems. They include heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Even the odds of an early death increase. What’s more, regular exercise can’t make up for the harm caused by long periods of sitting.

Findings from an American Cancer Society study of more than 120,000 people are eye-opening: 

  • Women who reported more than six hours per day of sitting were 37 percent more likely to die during the time period studied than those who sat fewer than 3 hours a day.
  • Men who sat more than 6 hours a day were 18 percent more likely to die than those who sat fewer than 3 hours per day.
  • Women and men who both sat more and were less physically active were 94 percent and 48 percent more likely, respectively, to die during the time period compared to those who reported sitting the least and being most active.1

In October of 2012, Forbes.com reported on the problem. The article looked at 18 studies of about 800,000 people. Here’s what researchers found among those who sat the most:

  • a 112 percent increase in their relative risk of getting diabetes
  • a 147 percent increase in their risk of heart disease
  • a 49 percent greater risk of dying early.2

Why are long periods of sitting so bad for you?
Part of the problem is that you don’t use as much energy as when you’re moving. That makes it easier to gain weight. Being overweight makes you more prone to problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

When you spend long periods sitting, your body starts doing things that are bad for you, according to the New York Times. Your metabolism, the way your body stores fuel and changes it to energy, changes. For example, after just one hour of sitting, the chemical that helps your body burn fat drops by as much as 90 percent. Many medical experts now refer to this change in metabolism as “sitting disease.”3

It’s easier than you think to break the cycle of sitting.
Sitting too much affects your body in a negative way. When muscles are active, they produce substances that are good for you. James A Levine, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor at Mayo Clinic. He addresses the issue on MayoClinic.com. According to Dr. Levine, the solution seems to be less sitting and more moving overall. Even very short periods of activity can be helpful.

One way to start is by simply standing rather than sitting whenever you have the chance. For example:

  • Stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch.
  • If you work at a desk for long periods of time, try a standing desk. Or, just use a high table or counter.
  • Walk laps with your co-workers rather than sitting in a conference room for meetings.
  • Position your work surface above a treadmill. That way you can be in motion throughout the day. You can use a computer screen and keyboard on a stand. Special upright desks are also available.4

More good suggestions are offered on NPR.org.5 The site references the book, Instant Recess, by Toni Yancey, M.D., MPH. She offers the following ideas for people who feel chained to their desks:

  • Take a 10-minute activity break at a scheduled time every day.
  • Park farther away from where you work, shop, play, study, and worship. 
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Put printers a short walking distance away from your workspace instead of next to it.
  • Replace desk chairs with a big therapy ball. This uses more muscles and more energy than a normal chair. You have to support your back, and work to keep balanced. You also have the option of bouncing.
  • Fidget, stand up, and stretch at intervals during meetings.

An Australian study by Genevieve Healy and her colleagues at the University of Queensland6 found that one-minute mini-breaks throughout the day make a real difference, too. You can march in place or take a few steps back and forth. These simple moves can help lower blood sugar, fat, cholesterol, and waist size.

“If there’s a fountain of youth,” Yancey said, “it’s probably physical activity.”

1 http://pressroom.cancer.org/index.php?s=43&item=257
2 http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/10/21/research-shows-that-the-more-you-sit-the-less-youll-live/
3 http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/stand-up-while-you-read-this/?em
4 http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sitting-disease/MY02177/METHOD=print
5 http://www.npr.org/2011/04/25/135575490/sitting-all-day-worse-for-you-than-you-might-think
6 http://sma.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/pres-4.pdf

This material is intended for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your doctor.