The Hazards of Sitting

. . . even though you exercise, too much sitting can kill you!

It began back in 1953 when researchers found that bus conductors in London had half as many heart disease related deaths as bus drivers. The difference between the two groups: Drivers sit for the major part of their work day, while conductors are in constant motion, collecting fares by walking the aisles and going up and down the stairs of the English double-decker buses.

Since the fifties, exercise physiologists have found that non-exercise physical activity (NEPA), specifically staying relatively active throughout the day versus sitting for prolonged periods, seems to have an even more beneficial impact on health than regular sessions of more strenuous exercise. By now, numerous studies have associated higher levels of NEPA, regardless of exercise, with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, dementia and cancer. Meanwhile increased time spent sitting is associated with increased risk of disease and even mortality.

A case in point is a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. About 4,000 men and women aged 60 were followed for approximately 12 years. Those who spent the most time engaged in NEPA on a daily basis had a 30% reduced risk of death compared with those who were least active, and a 27% reduced risk of a first-time cardiovascular event. Further, they had smaller waists, lower triglycerides, higher levels of the “good” cholesterol HDL, and a lower incidence of metabolic syndrome.  All of these results were independent of whether the subjects exercised regularly or not!

It makes sense.  Movement is essential to life. Being confined to your bed for any significant length of time, or being an astronaut in space where gravitational force is minimal, has been shown to have many detrimental effects. Now it’s becoming clearer that sitting for protracted periods of time on a daily basis is also harmful.

So what are those of us whose jobs dictate that we sit at a desk, in front of a computer, across from clients, or behind a wheel to do?

Scientist Joan Vernikos, PhD, who worked with astronauts at NASA and later conducted experiments on mitigating the effects of long-term bed rest, has an answer.  Her experiments and those of other exercise physiologists indicate that simply standing up from a seated position 36 times throughout the day is enough to prevent the physical deterioration that would otherwise occur. Moving in opposition to gravity is the key to stimulate appropriate cell function. You can’t make this into one or two exercise sessions; rather, you need to get up and move around at various intervals throughout the day—you could even set a timer for 15-minute periods. Also, the new fad of working standing up is not a helpful alternative, as it too is a relatively static position. The more you can move against gravity, and the more varied the movement, the better.  Dr. Vernikos recommends “playing” with gravity and becoming inventive: stooping, squatting, reaching, bending, stretching, jumping, etc.  She has various suggestions for incorporating more movement into your life in her book, Sitting Kills, Movement Heals.

Regular exercise is still necessary for optimal health (we continue to recommend 15 minutes of rebounding once or better twice a day), but getting up out of your chair and moving against gravity regularly throughout the day may be even more critical.

 

Morris JN. Coronary heart-disease and physical activity of work. Lancet. 1953;262:1053-1057, 1111-1120.
Ekblom-Bak E. The importance of non-exercise physical activity for cardiovascular health and longevity. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2014;48:233-238.
Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, Dr. Joseph Mercola interviews Dr. Joan Vernikos, PhD.
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