Is Sitting Truly the New Smoking?

Aleisha Fetters
by Aleisha Fetters
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Is Sitting Truly the New Smoking?

Sitting is a part of life, yes. But we’re sitting so much these days, and it’s catching up to us. “In recent years, more and more attention has been brought to the potentially harmful side effects of spending too much time in a seated position,” says Justin Russ, a strength and conditioning coach for IMG Academy in Florida. “Excessive sitting can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.” A 2015 study even compared sitting to smoking.

“Prolonged sitting can also be linked with tight muscles and bad posture, which can lead to back pain and tight hamstring muscles and hip flexors,” adds Jeanette Garcia, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Central Florida. “[These issues] may reduce your ability to exercise, which further increases the risk of disease.” However, it turns out sitting for work and lounging on the sofa watching TV may not be created equal.

THE TROUBLE WITH “LEISURE” SITTING

Garcia studied the impact of occupational sitting (i.e., in a work setting) compared to leisure time (i.e., sitting on the couch watching TV) on cardiovascular disease factors. The findings published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that those who sat on the sofa watching television for at least four hours per day had a 50% higher risk of heart disease or death than those who spent prolonged periods sitting at work.

“Watching television tends to be associated with unhealthy behaviors such as mindlessly snacking on chips or sweets; watching TV also tends to be linked with more prolonged sitting,” she explains. If you’re binge-watching a show, for example, it can be easy to sit for hours at a time. The late-night blue light from the television screen harms sleep quality, and if you’re snacking on junk food like greasy chips you could experience heartburn, which will also disrupt sleep, says Garcia. It’s also possible watching TV before bed encourages you to stay up later (rather than observing healthy nighttime habits like taking a hot bath or journaling), thus contributing to sleep deprivation and corresponding health problems like weight gain.

This research might come as a relief if you work a desk job, but it’s not a free pass to spend all day sitting in front of your computer. Frequent breaks to stand up and move around are still essential.

In a study of 45 older women, Joseph Henson, PhD, of the Diabetes Research Centre at the University of Leicester, found breaking up 30 minutes of sitting with 5 minutes of light walking improved metabolic health markers. Additional research shows interspersing long periods of sitting with frequent brisk walks also boosted cognitive function.

“Office workers who decreased their total time spent sitting by 83 minutes per workday showed improvements in job performance, work engagement, occupational fatigue, musculoskeletal problems and quality of life,” adds Henson.

“Our bodies are designed to move [and] even small amounts of light activity will make a difference,” he says. “Encouraging evidence shows simply substituting sitting for standing throughout the day improves glucose regulation in post-menopausal women at high risk of Type 2 diabetes.”

WHY MOVEMENT SHOULD BE A PRIORITY

For many of us, whether we work out or not, we’re spending relatively equal parts of our days on our rear ends — in the car, at our desks, on the couch, you name it. Research from Northwestern University shows women who regularly exercise spend just as much time sitting as inactive women. And a meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found time spent sitting, regardless of exercise, is associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality, heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.

So, is there any way to counter the ill effects of sitting? Or are we doomed?

It is possible to counteract “sitting disease.” The thing is, it requires more activity than what organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association recommend.

For instance, a 2015 Circulation review of 12 studies involving more than 370,000 men and women found those who followed the AHA’s 30-minute daily guidelines were associated with “modest reductions” in heart failure risk. However, those who spent 2 and 4 times that amount enjoyed a “substantial risk reduction” of 20% and 35%, respectively. Basically, the more you move, the less risk your desk job poses to your health.

Meanwhile, a 2016 study of more than 1 million adults published in The Lancet found exercising 1 hour for every 8 hours spent sitting results in a significant reduction — and in some cases, elimination — in the risk of death from heart disease, diabetes and some cancers associated with sitting.

The news gets better: Fortunately for all of the time-strapped people out there, that hour per day doesn’t have to happen in one chunk. You can spread it out, according to researchers: in the gym, at the office, on the way to pick your kids up from school, anywhere.

Here are five tips to help you exercise your way out of the adverse effects of sitting, no matter how many hours you spend each day on your rear end:

1

STEER CLEAR OF EXERCISE MACHINES

“What do 90% of exercise machines have in common? They place the exerciser in a seated position,” Russ says. He recommends swapping out exercise machine workouts for functional free-weight workouts centered around basic human movement patterns like the squat, deadlift, lunge, pull and rotate.

2

TAKE HOURLY MINI-BREAKS

“If you sit at a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., try to move every hour throughout the day,” says Tonya Dugger, an American Council on Exercise-certified trainer and group fitness manager at Equinox in Chicago. She notes that moving even 2–3 minutes every hour can get the blood moving to keep your body healthy. Try downloading an app that lets you set it so that every hour, your screen dims, a “break” theme appears, and you’re encouraged to get up. Try performing one round of a bodyweight circuit in your cubicle every hour. (We promise you won’t get too sweaty.)

3

WATCH YOUR “ACTIVE” MINUTES

Many fitness trackers display not just steps taken per day but also “active minutes,” which can help you gauge your active undertakings that don’t involve putting one foot in front of the other. After all, pushups won’t count toward your step totals, but they will certainly help you combat sitting. “Take advantage of the data to motivate yourself to hit new numbers,” he says.

4

SCHEDULE WALKING MEETINGS

Apart from getting you on your feet, walking meetings are more productive than those held in chairs, says Kathleen Hale, founder of the Chair Free Project. “Start with holding meetings with co-workers whom you believe would be receptive to the idea,” she says. “As others see you happily walking and chatting, the movement just might catch on.”

5

NAME ONE TASK AS A STANDING ONE

“To remind ourselves to get out of our chairs, we need a cue,” Hale says. “Pick a task that you can do while standing and make it your ‘get up’ cue. Maybe it’s talking on the phone, reviewing documents or even checking social media. When it is time to perform whichever task you picked, stand up to get the job done. Even these short breaks from sitting can really make a difference.”

Originally published October 2016, updated with additional reporting by Jodi Helmer

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About the Author

Aleisha Fetters
Aleisha Fetters

Aleisha is a health and fitness writer, contributing to online and print publications including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, TIME, USNews.com, MensFitness.com and Shape.com. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she concentrated on health and science reporting. She is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the NSCA. You can read more from Aleisha at kaleishafetters.com, or follow her on Twitter @kafetters.

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