If you sit too much—whether at an office desk or at school, for long commutes or for travel, in front of the computer or television—then you might be a sitting duck for ill health. It’s a potentially pervasive problem, too, since Americans typically spend more than half their time sitting.
The truth is that sitting for long periods of time is just plain bad for your health, even if you exercise regularly. Studies show that people who spend most of their days sitting are more likely to be overweight, have a heart attack or die. While the research is still preliminary, it’s certainly a wake-up call.
“After four hours of sitting, the body starts to send harmful signals,” said Elin Ekblom-Bak of the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. She explains that genes regulating the amount of glucose and fat in the body start to shut down with prolonged sitting. Even for people who exercise, spending extended amounts of time sitting is still harmful to your health, according to Ekblom-Bak.
Unfortunately, the researchers aren’t sure how much sitting is too much; they do, however, suggest that you limit how much time you sit. “We don’t have enough evidence yet to say how much sitting is bad,” says Peter Katzmarzyk of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, who led the study. “But it seems the more you can get up and interrupt this sedentary behavior, the better.”
Tim Armstrong, a physical activity expert at the World Health Organization suggests that people who exercise every day—and spend a lot of time sitting—should consider breaking up their exercise time. Instead of exercising in one single bout, they may get more benefit from exercise that’s dotted throughout the day.
For those who don’t exercise regularly or every day, consider adding more movement. “People should keep exercising [or begin, if they don’t exercise] because that has a lot of benefits,” Ekblom-Bak says. “But when they’re in the office, they should try to interrupt sitting as often as possible,” she said. “Don’t just send your colleague an e-mail. Walk over and talk to him. Standing up.”
The good news is that, even if you sit a lot, you might be able to stop the spread of “sitting syndrome.” It may as easy as moving around more—even if you have to schedule it.