Experts warn of heavy health toll from “sitting-disease” epidemic
You rise at dawn for a morning jog before heading to the office, slip out at noon for the occasional lunchtime walk or ride with a friend, and make a point of hitting the trails or slopes on the weekends.
“We’re beginning to realize that something extremely potent is happening to our bodies in the hours of the day we sit idle,”
“Sitting is the new smoking,” says Dr. Noel So, medical director at Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver. “A lot of people assume they don’t need to worry about this because they exercise. But the reality is, even if you work out an hour a day, you’re still at risk of a host of cardio-metabolic diseases if you sit all day.”
Recent studies show the average American sits a whopping nine to 10.5 of the 16 hours he or she is awake, and that fitness fanatics don’t necessarily sit any less than couch potatoes. One 2012 study by researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., measured activity levels of 91 healthy women ages 40 to 75 for one week and found that, on average, they spent 64 hours sitting, 28 standing still, and 11 engaged in “non-exercise stepping.” When comparing those who met or exceeded the recommended federal guidelines for exercise (150 hours per week) to those who didn’t, researchers saw no difference in sitting time. Women spent just as much time sitting on the days they worked out hard and long as on the days they didn’t work out at all.
“Sometimes we forget that we were hunters and gatherers. Our bodies were made to move.”
That’s a problem, says Professor Marc Hamilton, a researcher with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center and a pioneer in the burgeoning field of “inactivity physiology.” He says that while the public health community has for decades promoted regular bouts of moderate-to-vigorous exercise, it has not paid enough attention to the value of light movement throughout the day and the “serious health hazard” of prolonged sitting.
“We’re beginning to realize that something extremely potent is happening to our bodies in the hours of the day we sit idle,” says Hamilton. “My lab has shown that even in as little as one day of sitting too much, young people who are fit show large and rapid deterioration in key aspects of metabolic health.”
Sit at a desk for hours, day after day, and you may ultimately wind up with a sore back and flabby middle (due to the lack of calories you’re burning). But long before those outward changes appear, inner-changes are underway. Studies in animals and humans suggest that within just a few hours of remaining sedentary, their good cholesterol levels begin to plummet, their muscles begin to lose the ability to burn fat for fuel, their body becomes more insulin-resistant, and genes deep in the leg muscles which are responsible for controlling inflammation and other processes begin to shut down.
Meanwhile, blood begins to pool in your leg veins, stretching them. “It makes you more prone to developing deep-vein blood clots and varicose veins,” says Dr. William Grande, an interventional radiologist with RIA Endovascular in Denver.
Long term, this cascade of metabolic changes can lead to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, studies show. One recent analysis of 18 studies including 800,000 participants found that people who sat the most compared to the least (independent of how much they exercised) were twice as likely to develop diabetes. Another, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that women who sat for more than six hours (compared to three) daily had a 40 percent increased risk of premature death. Sitting too long may also take a toll on your brain, which thrives on surges of hormones, such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which come with exercise. Too much chair-time can also influence appetite-regulating hormones, such as leptin and ghrelin.
The solution? Stand up, So says.
She encourages office workers to convert their desks into standing desks, and when she has to call a meeting at Spalding, she makes it a “walking meeting,” with participants sporting signs that say “meeting in progress” (so no one disturbs them). At one point, before taking her job in Colorado, she coordinated a wellness program at the Mayo Clinic, where she even hosted one lecture a month in the Spinning gym rather than the lecture hall.
“We sit in our car on the way to work. We take the elevator to our office. We sit in our chair at our desk, and when we get home, we sit on the couch and watch TV,” says So. “Sometimes we forget that we were hunters and gatherers. Our bodies were made to move.”
Five tips to combat sitting disease
- Convert to a standing desk, or make one yourself using a bookshelf.
- Set an hourly alarm during your work day, and stand up for a few minutes. Stretch; fill your water bottle.
- Skip the conference room: Hold walking meetings.
- Walk over to talk to co-workers instead of emailing.
- Wear compression socks to promote blood flow in your legs if you must sit for long periods.
Tags: sitting disease epidemic
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