New research shows a sedentary lifestyle, which often include sitting for hours each day, may cause a pileup of serious health problems.
Sitting is now called the new smoking: as in, the habit that could kill you.
The news about Americans sitting too much—while working, surfing the internet, watching TV or reading—is hardly new. In 2005, Dr. James A. Levine of the Mayo Clinic published a famous study that noted how lean people burn about 350 calories a day more than overweight people, by pacing or walking around the office. He came up with the term NEAT, an acronym for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
Ten years later, the warnings are becoming more dire: Recent research has shown that not only does sitting for hours a day slow your metabolism, but it increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, as insulin effectiveness drops with lack of movement. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides also plunge, and that causes HDL (the good cholesterol that is supposed to be high) to drop.
Researchers also are reporting that those who sit too much have a higher risk of dying from heart disease. Increased risk of colon and endometrial cancers have also been added to the list of dangers.
Nolan Peterson is a wellness exercise specialist with the Healthy Living Program at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He says the evidence keeps mounting on how bad it is for us to sit as much as we do, which is why he urges people to get up and stand or move, at least 10 minutes each hour.
“We are built for movement,” he says. “Workouts are not enough to offset the harm of sitting.”
As he explains, “Our bodies are similar to computers. If they sit too long, they go into hibernation.”
That means the body, and the brain, go into a kind of shutdown mode, he explains, which is bad because, “brains and muscles and metabolism are all stimulated by movement.”
And worse, the longer people sit, the more the activation of enzymes is impaired. That means fats don’t get pushed into muscles to get used up— instead, they circulate in the blood and body. That’s why heart disease, stroke and insulin resistance are the fallout from sitting for too long.
In one study, Dr. Andrea LaCroix, director of the Women’s Health Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego, found that women who reported the most sitting time were more likely to die during the 12-year-follow up of the study and those who sat more than 11 hours a day were at the highest risk.
Still, it’s not entirely clear. Is it that too much sitting brings additional health risks, or is it that people who are already inactive and unhealthy end up doing more sitting?
Standing desks have become the answer at some offices: at companies as big as AOL, even at some governmental agencies, such as the Board of Developmental Disabilities in Cleveland, where many employees have had raised desks installed for several years—and have reported losing not only weight, but the common afternoon “slump.”
It doesn’t have to be a fear of dying, though, that gets you upright.
Kavita Sherman, a project manager in Strongsville, OH, found that sitting for hours helped create a months-long bout with excruciating sciatica. Sherman, who has always been lean and fit, soon found that it hurt too much to sit, so she could only work on her laptop while standing at a raised desk.
Now, as her sciatica has improved, Sherman vows she won’t let it happen again. “Standing while working is a reminder to keep moving,” she says, and her Fitbit reminds her how much more active it makes her. “I’ve also noticed that I stay more on task.”
By the way, standing up for office work is not new: The Victorians did it, and so did the ancient Greeks, who believed that standing and moving made people sharper and more inspired than sitting. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway—all standers—seem to give that credence.
So, get on your feet. Or, at least, move in that direction.
According to Dr. Mamie Burruss, director of Naturopathic Medicine at the new VeraVia Health and Wellness Retreat at Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad, CA, “All this sitting usually translates into a hunched thoracic spine (mid-back), with shoulders rolled forward and the neck protruding, which results in back pain, excess neck strain and tightness in the chest (pectoralis) muscles.”
Dr. Burruss shares a simple exercise, called Bruegger’s Postural Relief Exercise, to combat the aches and muscle imbalances, as well as improve your posture. It only takes 90 seconds, and you can do it at your desk.
- Sit on the edge of a chair, with feet flat on the floor and palms facing up, resting on your legs.
- Draw an imaginary straight line, connecting the top of your head to the middle of your pelvis. Check your posture in a mirror if possible, or have a friend or co-worker provide feedback.
- Roll your shoulders back and down, squeezing your shoulder blades together and down your back, as if you are trying to move your shoulder blades into your back pockets.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds; then relax, gently shake your arms, and roll your shoulders back and forth.
- Repeat the contraction twice more, holding for 30 seconds each time. Perform the entire exercise sequence throughout the day, aiming for a minimum of three times daily.
Ease into the Vertical
If you are thinking of shifting to standing, experts offer some important tips.
You can’t go from being sedentary to standing all day. It’s too much of a shock to the muscles in your feet, legs and back. Ease into it in small increments. One way is to make a point of getting up at least every hour, and walking or standing for five or 10 minutes.
Standing for many hours is hard on your body in its own way. Invest in a gel mat (you can find lots of choices online).
Wear appropriate shoes. Switch out of your high heels at work and wear a lower, supportive shoe, at least while you are standing.
Try a standing desk before investing in one. You can easily rig one by placing a lectern on your desk, or even stacking some old phone books on a table.
Have walking meetings—outside, if you can. They’ll likely be more energizing than any meeting you’ve ever sat through.