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Sitting Too Much- Consequences of a Sedentary World

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Like many folks, I sit way too much.  My job requires an incredible amount of computer time, reading, and sit-down meetings.  On top of this, I tend to get hyper-focused on projects and before I know it, I have been sitting at my desk for 60 minutes without a break.  The result, sore lower back, tense shoulders, and “ostrich neck” – you know that forward leaning motion with your head and neck extended directly at the screen.  Over the last few years, sitting and its effects on our bodies has received a lot of press and for good reason.  It turns out, too much time on the hind end, not only makes us stiff and sore, it actually puts us at risk for serious health consequences and premature aging.

A 2015 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that more than half of the average person’s waking hours are spent sitting:  watching television, commuting (running errands), working at a computer, or doing other physically inactive pursuits.   The study found that those who sat for prolonged periods of time had a higher risk of dying from all causes. The inactivity of sitting leads to higher documented rates of type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.  Zoning in on cancer in particular, the University of Regensburg in Germany examined close to 70,000 cancer cases. They found that sitting is associated with a 24% increased risk for colon cancer, 32% increased risk of endometrial cancer, and a 21% increased risk of lung cancer.  And the really bad news is that you can’t exercise this away at the end of the day.  Even those who regularly exercise are susceptible to health consequences if they sit too much the rest of the time and don’t take routine breaks.

The body is a complex mechanism and researchers still do not know exactly how sitting contributes to poor health. Here is what we know so far:

Sitting Causes a Biochemical Mishap

Research suggests that sugar and fat are metabolized differently when we sit which affects a person’s risk for diabetes and heart disease.  Dr. Marc Hamilton, an expert in sedentary physiology at the University of Houston, explains that sitting for prolonged periods has been shown to induce biochemical changes in lipoprotein lipase (enzyme) activity.  This enzyme normally allows muscles to remove fat from the bloodstream but when we sit too long, it essentially turns off.  As a consequence, fat in the bloodstream goes directly to fatty deposits.  So yikes, more fat, less muscle.  

Sitting = Weight Gain = Elevated Risk for Chronic Diseases

You burn 30% more calories when you stand than when you sit.  Days, months, and years of sitting add up and the number of unused calories adds up which leads to weight gain. These additional pounds also contribute to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.   

Sitting = Bad Posture and Pressure

When we sit, we generally crouch forward which leads to an unnaturally curved spine.  This is especially true of folks who do lots of desk work.  This uneven pressure puts strain on the spine, muscles, and joints.  In addition, because we are hunched over, our lungs have less space to expand.  This limits how deeply we breathe which limits the amount of oxygen in our bloodstream and brain.  (This is why we actually become less productive and tired the longer we sit.  The brain needs oxygen to stay alert and active.)  Finally, sitting compresses tissue especially in the glute and thigh regions.  This cuts off circulation and causes swelling in the lower extremities.  By the way, substituting standing for sitting is not the answer.  Standing in one place also puts pressure on the body and can lead to circulatory problems such as varicose veins.  

Sitting Speeds Aging

A Swedish study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that telomeres (tiny caps on the ends of DNA strands) in people who sit all day get shorter.  As telomeres get shorter, the rate at which the body ages and decays speeds up.  Conversely, the study found “that the telomeres in [those] who were sitting the least had lengthened. Their cells seemed to be growing physiologically younger.”

The Good News – Movement is the Answer and its FREE!

The bottom line is our bodies were made to move.  We have over 360 joints and 700 muscles – all made to move.  A 2008 Australian study found those who took more breaks from sitting throughout the day had narrower waists, lower weights, and lower cholesterol.  The average length of their breaks:  just four and a half minutes. The American Academy of Family Physicians and the Cornell University Ergonomics program suggest the following to keep us healthy as possible in a sit-down world:

  • Take a one to three minute break about every half hour during the day to stand.

Take a one to three minute break about every half hour during the day to stand.

Cornell suggests, for every 20 minutes of sitting, stand for 8 minutes and move for 2 minutes. (Either way – get into the habit of moving around every 20 minutes or so.)

  • Stand or exercise while watching TV.

  • Set achievable goals and scale up slowly.  For example, reduce sitting time by 15 to 20 minutes a day and then set weekly goals to improve.  Aim to cut two to three hours of sedentary time.

  • Stand and walk around while talking on the phone.

  • Set an alarm on your phone or computer to get up and move every ½ hour.

  • MOVE throughout the day, every day.  Remember exercising one hour a day is great (keep doing it) but it won’t counteract prolonged sitting.  Frequent movement variety throughout the day will help neutralize the effects of sitting.  

Stand or exercise while watching TV.

Set achievable goals and scale up slowly.  For example, reduce sitting time by 15 to 20 minutes a day and then set weekly goals to improve.  Aim to cut two to three hours of sedentary time.

Stand and walk around while talking on the phone.

Set an alarm on your phone or computer to get up and move every ½ hour.

MOVE throughout the day, every day.  Remember exercising one hour a day is great (keep doing it) but it won’t counteract prolonged sitting.  Frequent movement variety throughout the day will help neutralize the effects of sitting.  

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.  

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