The Many Health Risks of…Sitting Down?

by Wellness Editor – MH

See if you can answer this question: what common habit has been linked to higher rates of diabetes, depression, obesity and shorter life span? Eating junk food? Smoking cigarettes? Yes, but those aren’t the responses we’re looking for. You’ll probably be a bit shocked to read this, but the answer is sitting down. Though lying around the house might seem harmless, evidence suggests that getting off your rear end can add years to your life.

Some Good Reasons to Stay Active

It’s widely known that many people have a hard time leaving the couch, preferring to spend their free time parked in front of a TV or computer. Even still, the following numbers might come as a bit of a shock.

  • In the United States, roughly 50 to 70 percent of people spend at least six hours daily sitting down
  • 20 to 35 percent of people spend 4+ hours watching TV each day
  • 65 percent of Americans spend at least 2 hours per day watching TV
  • On any given day, a person in the US spends between 4½ and 5 hours sitting
  • A survey conducted by Harris Interactive found that Americans spend 13 hours online each week

When you add it all up, that’s a whole lot of sitting on your duff. But aside from wasting time better spent on physical activities, how harmful could all of this sitting actually be?

As it turns out, quite a lot. For starters, take the results of a massive, 17,000 participant survey released in 2009 by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. The Pennington study reported that people who spent most of the day sitting were 54 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who rarely sat. A skeptic might scoff at these results, arguing that the comparatively poor health of the heavy sitters was caused by other factors, such as smoking and poor diet.

The Pennington team, however, wisely took such lifestyle decisions into consideration when conducting their research. What the Pennington doctors found when accounting for these factors is truly remarkable (and simultaneously unsettling); the strong correlation between sitting and heart problems remained unaltered. Even if a subject refrained from smoking and exercised regularly, sitting for long periods of time significantly increased his or her risk of heart attack.

Your cardiovascular system isn’t the only part of your body that suffers from endless hours of sitting. A slew of studies have linked prolonged sitting to type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and breast cancer. Of course, a higher risk of such notorious diseases often translates into a higher risk of premature death. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (a compilation of studies assembled the by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Americans would live an average of two years longer if we reduced our sitting-down time to under three hours per day. By the same token, the average American could enjoy an addition years of life by capping his or her TV watching at two hours.

Exercise Isn’t Enough

If you’re like most office workers, your day probably consists of nearly eight hours of sitting by a computer monitor. This thoroughly sedentary activity is bookmarked by a seated commute to work via car, train or bus. When you finally do get home, you’re immediately hit with a strong urge to watch TV or flip on your laptop.  By the time bedtime rolls around, you’ve spent virtually all of your day sitting (or lying on your back, which has virtually the same impact on the body).

As stated above, those hoping to counteract the dangerous effects of sitting through exercise alone are in for a rude awakening. In addition to the report issued by the Pennington center, a 2007 study conducted by University of Missouri doctors also unearthed an unmistakable link between sitting and lower calorie burn off. The University of Missouri project compared two sets of participants; one group performed little in the way of traditional exercise, but spent a good deal of time walking, standing and generally moving around. The other set ran an impressive 35 miles per week, but were more likely to sit and lie down during their free time. When examining each group’s rate of calorie expenditure, the results weren’t even close; the group that seldom exercised burned off far more calories than the sitting-prone runners.

This is not to say that exercise is useless; quite the contrary, as the benefits of regular exercise could account for several articles on their own. The real lesson here is that spending hours on your backside can thoroughly undermine a seemingly active lifestyle. To avoid this problem, get off your rear and give these easy-to-follow tips a try:

Transmit Messages the Old-Fashioned Way – For most workers, the fallback method for communicating with coworkers is email. The allure of email is that it allows for instant communication, without having to leave the comfort of your desk. Unfortunately, this also encourages workers to remain stuck in neutral in front of their computer monitors. Though it may require more time and effort, walking down the hall to your coworker’s office or cubicle forces the body to get moving and stop sitting.

Walk or Stand During Lunch – Like most office drones, you probably eat lunch in the same position as you do work – firmly seated on a chair. If possible, try walking around outside during your lunch break. Even the simple act of standing in the break room represents a healthier alternative to sitting.

Try taking mini-breaks – Ideally, you should never sit for more that 40 minutes straight at your desk. While this might not be especially practical in a modern office environment, it is certainly possible to get away for a minute or two. Simply take a quick stroll around the office, or go refill your cup at the water cooler.

Stand When Possible – A little bit of standing can go a long way. While it can be tough to get work done while standing up, there are a few ways around this roadblock. For example, you can try taking phone calls while standing.

Related Stories

Parkinson’s Disease is one of the most devastating progressive diseases in existence. Those living with this condition can expect …