If you spend most of your day sitting or sedentary in some way, then you could be a sitting duck for ill health or even early death. The truth is, many experts say that our sedentary lifestyle is just as dangerous to our health as cigarette smoking is. Unfortunately, studies indicate that those who spend most of their days sitting are more likely to be overweight, have a heart attack or die. In fact, inactivity is such a health hazard that there’s now a new area of medical study called Inactivity Physiology. Its focus is to research the effects of our sedentary, tech-driven lives that result in a deadly new epidemic that researchers have termed “sitting disease.”
Dr. David Coven, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York, agrees. He says, “Smoking certainly is a major cardiovascular risk and sitting can be equivalent in many cases.” Coven adds that the latest research indicates that too much sitting and inactivity is linked to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and even premature death.
Likewise, Marc Hamilton, Ph.D. associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri explains that after sitting for an extended period of time, the body starts to shut down at the metabolic level. Research backs that up. The less you move, the less fat you burn and the less blood sugar you use. For example, for every two hours you sit, your chances for getting diabetes go up 7 percent. Heart disease risk increases, too, since the enzymes that keep blood fats in check are inactive. Additionally, key enzymes for breaking down triglycerides switch off.
That’s not good news for the “sitters” out there, and there are plenty of us who sit for extended periods of time. A 2003-2004 survey indicates that Americans spend more than half their waking hours sitting, whether it’s at a desk, in a car, in front of a computer or on a couch watching television or just hanging out. A newer poll conducted by the Institute for Medicine and Public Health says that we spend 56 hours a week sitting. And it doesn’t matter where you’re sitting, just that you’re sitting too much. Interestingly, after about four hours of sitting, the body starts to send harmful signals, according to Elin Ekblom-Bak of the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. She further explains that genes regulating the amount of glucose and fat in the body start to shut down. Shockingly, sitting for a full day can reduce your fat-burning capability by 50 percent.
Then there’s mental health and back health. A sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of depression, since less blood flow means fewer “feel good” hormones circulating to your brain. And as for back health . . . Douglas Lentz, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, says, “When you sit all day, your hip flexors and hamstrings shorten and tighten, while the muscles that support your spine become weak and stiff.” Maybe that’s why chronic lower-back pain among women alone has tripled since the early 1990s.
There is some good news, however. Exercise can help. A study published in the online version of The Lancet indicates that exercising for even as little as 15 minutes a day can slash your risk of dying from all means by 14 percent and your risk of dying from cancer by 10 percent while adding at least three years to your life. If you add an extra 15 minutes of exercise daily beyond that minimal 15 minutes, then death from all causes reduces another four percent, while death from cancer is reduced by an additional one percent. The individuals who were in the “inactive group” of the study, however, had a 17 percent increased risk of mortality compared to those who were in the group that exercised only 15 minutes a day.
There is a possible caveat to regular exercising and how it may offset the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, however. You need to interrupt your sitting as much as possible. Why? Even for those who exercise regularly, sitting for extended periods of time is unhealthy. Tim Armstrong, a physical activity expert, says that those who exercise daily but also spend a lot of time sitting might benefit more from exercise that is done throughout the day, not all at once. Getting up and walking about every 30 minutes or so—to make copies, go to the bathroom, ask a co-worker a question or even a lunch-break stroll around the block— can help.
So, keep moving, and avoid those sitting dangers.