Undoing a Lifetime of Sitting

Trending right now in health and fitness studies is the apparent link between hours of sitting and bad health.  The first couple of studies done a few years ago produced such shockingly depressing results that there is a natural desire to continue to test the hypothesis through more and more studies on the subject.  This is a good thing.  The more scientific studies devoted to such an important topic, the better our understanding and the more likely we all can take action in our daily lives that will make us healthier.  All good, right?  Yes, but…

The rub is, taking these studies to the public leads to headlines like “Sitting is the New Smoking: Ways a Sedentary Lifestyle is Killing You” and statements like “the effects of long-term sitting are not reversible.”  I dislike this approach because it implies the science is settled and, worse, it seems as though we are hopeless to do anything about it.  I’m not a pessimist and I detest the sensationalized headlines and the all-is-lost message they portray.  Let’s take a deep breath and a good, rational look at the facts.

First, the bad news:

  • Several recent peer-reviewed studies tested the correlation between number of hours sitting per day and mortality.  The results have been consistent: there is an association between number of hours sitting per day and chronic diseases (type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers), conditions that predispose one to these diseases (such as high LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, obesity and poor insulin sensitivity) and early death.
  • In one study, the risk factors didn’t seem to be less if the individual was active at other times of the day.  Suggesting, for example, that sitting at a desk for 8 hours at work was not offset by stopping at the gym on the way home for an hour-long vigorous workout.
  • The apparent cut-off point is about 4 hours.  In other words, sitting for less than 4 hours total per day did not raise risk factors of disease and early death, sitting for a total of 4 hours or more per day did raise risk factors.
  • Prolonged sitting is detrimental to posture and contributes to muscle imbalances that raise the risks of developing dysfunctional joint movement, acute and chronic pain, and injury.
  • Click here for a slideshow outlining the conclusions of these studies.

Now, reasons to be optimistic:

  • These studies suggest an association, not causation.  Lots more studies need to be done, particularly long-term studies, before we can conclude sitting more than 4 hours per day causes early death.
  • The suggestion that the detrimental effects of prolonged sitting are irreversible is based on only one study.  None of the studies done thus far have had a long enough trial period to be able to come to such a conclusion.  It is far too premature to make such a blanket statement.  It can, however, serve as a warning to all of us to take action sooner rather than later and to limit the amount of time spent seated as much as possible.
  • The average American work week (46 hours) plus the average American commute time (26 minutes, one way) plus 8 hours of sleep per night, still leaves about 60 hours remaining in the average American’s week to not be sitting at a desk or in a car.  There are opportunities, both during and after the workday, available to all of us to stand up and move – lots of them.

At Work

  • If your workplace has a wellness program or healthy lifestyle incentives, check with your Human Resources department to see if it’s possible to have the company update your workstation.  Phone headsets, podium-style desk space or a raised workspace could free you up to stand for certain tasks.  Even if the company won’t provide you with new workspace furniture, you may be able to make a few, no-cost adjustments to your workspace to allow for more work while standing.
  • Consider scheduling “walking meetings” for one-on-one status meetings.
  • Set an alarm on your watch or cellphone for one-hour intervals to remind you to get up from your desk and take a 5 minute walk.
  • Use stairs instead of the elevator
  • When taking a restroom, coffee or water break – use a bathroom, water cooler or break room on a different floor or the one furthest away from your workstation.
  • Walk during lunch hours and have a working lunch at your desk when you return.
  • Use standing lunch counters when having coffee or lunch away from the office.
  • Use tips from “The Art of Active Sitting”

At Home

  • Give yourself a daily limit of seated screen time to divvy up among your home computer, TV and tablet and stick to it.
  • Perform strength and flexibility workouts at home while watching TV (and then you don’t have to count that time against your daily limit from above).  See my strength and flexibility training workout for desk jockeys.
  • Cook more meals from scratch – all done standing.  Not to mention bending, lifting and carrying.
  • Perform tasks like folding laundry, paying bills, and talking/texting on the phone while standing.
  • When possible, run errands on foot or by bike.  If you need a car, always park in spaces furthest away from your destination and use a hand-held basket over a shopping cart when possible.
  • If you’ve hired out housecleaning or yard work, consider reclaiming some or all of those tasks.  If that seems too daunting and you have school-aged children, remember being active is good for them too.  You could take an hour out of your weekend, divide the chores up and complete them as a family.  Paying your children to take on some of these responsibilities is cheaper than paying a professional and teaches them the value of work and how to handle money.
  • Educate yourself on the latest in these studies.  The more informed you are, the better choices you’ll make about your lifestyle.  Be sure to avoid the pitfalls of sensationalized headlines, though.  See my post on how to intelligently read reports on fitness and health studies.

Yes, these studies are sobering.  But all is not lost.  There are lots of ways we all can move more and sit less.  It takes commitment, will and some creativity to stay on track.  And, of course, you need a good reason to make the necessary changes. If good health and quality of life aren’t enough to motivate you, remember that you are responsible for modeling fit behavior for your children.  If that isn’t motivation enough, I’m not sure what is.



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