If you’re like most people, you spend a vast majority of your day sitting down—in your office, commuting to and from work, watching TV in the evening... Research1 shows that the average American spends nine to 10 hours of their day sitting.
Certain occupations, such as telecommunications employees spend an average of 12 hours sitting each day. I was certainly in that group and for 15 years was sitting more than 12 hours a day. And, the more sedentary you are at work, the more sedentary you will tend to be at home as well.
Thankfully, last year, the evidence became overwhelmingly compelling and I have essentially eliminated 95 percent of my sitting. I found that merely getting up for a few minutes even six times an hour would not help eliminate my back pain but stopping sitting altogether did.
Even on weekends, the average person sits for eight hours. This behavior can be more problematic than you might think, as the human body was designed to be in more or less constant movement throughout the day.
I really wasn’t aware of this prior to last year, but the evidence shows that prolonged sitting actively promotes dozens of chronic diseases, including overweight and type 2 diabetes, even if you’re very fit. This is really highly counterintuitive as it would seem physically fit people could get away with sitting.
However, research shows that maintaining a regular fitness regimen cannot counteract the accumulated ill effects of sitting eight to 12 hours a day in between bouts of exercise. This is very strong evidence to seriously consider eliminating as much sitting as you can.
Sitting really is the new smoking and it increases your rate of lung cancer by over 50 percent. Who would have known that sitting is far more dangerous than second hand smoke?
Analysis Concludes: Sitting Kills, Even if You Exercise
There’s really compelling evidence showing that when you sit for lengths of time, disease processes set in that independently raise your mortality risk, even if you eat right, exercise regularly and are very fit; even a professional or Olympic level athlete.
The most recent systematic review2,3 looked at 47 studies of sedentary behavior, and discovered that the time a person spends sitting each day produces detrimental effects that outweigh the benefits reaped from exercise.
Sitting was found to increase your risk of death from virtually all health problems, from type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease to cancer and all-cause mortality. For example, sitting for more than eight hours a day was associated with a 90 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Other research4 has found that those who sit the most have a 112 percent increased Relative Risk of diabetes, and a 147 percent increased relative risk of cardiovascular events compared to those who sit the least.
All-cause mortality is also increased by 50 percent. In fact, chronic sitting has a mortality rate similar to smoking.5 And, the less you exercise, the more pronounced the detrimental effects of sitting. To counteract the ill effects of prolonged sitting, the authors of the featured review6 suggest that you:
- Keep track of how much you’re sitting each day, and make an effort to reduce it, little by little, each week
- Use a standing desk at work. Although standing up frequently is better than constant sitting I am now strongly convinced that avoiding sitting completely is far preferable and has better metabolic effects.
- When watching TV, stand up and/or walk around during commercial breaks
More Studies Highlighting Debilitating Effects of Sitting
Part one in a two-part series of articles7 published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) at the beginning of January also highlights the hazards of our modern sedentary lifestyle, suggesting that public policy needs to be reassessed and updated to focus on increasing movement during work hours.
The article summarizes the findings from the 2015 Inaugural Active Working Summit, where a number of health effects of sitting were reviewed, including cancer and mental health. For example, one study presented at the summit found that sitting increases:
- Lung cancer by 54 percent
- Uterine cancer by 66 percent, and
- Colon cancer by 30 percent
The reason for this increased cancer risk is thought to be linked to weight gain and associated biochemical changes, such as alterations in hormones, metabolic dysfunction, leptin dysfunction, and inflammation—all of which promote cancer. Research also shows that your risk for anxiety and depression rises right along with hours spent in your chair.
Why Sitting Causes So Much Harm
Dr. James Levine, co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative, and author of the book Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, has dedicated a good part of his career to investigating the health effects of sitting. His investigations show that when you’ve been sitting for a long period of time and then get up, a number of molecular cascades occur. For example, within 90 seconds of standing up, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol—which are mediated by insulin—are activated.
All of these molecular effects are activated simply by carrying your own bodyweight. These cellular mechanisms are also responsible for pushing fuel into your cells and, if done regularly, will radically decrease your risk of diabetes and obesity. In short, at the molecular level, your body was designed to be active and on the move all day long. When you stop moving for extended periods of time, it’s like telling your body it’s time to shut down and prepare for death... As noted by Dr. Levine, while we clearly need to rest from time to time, that rest is supposed to break up activity—not the other way around! Inactivity—sitting—is not supposed to be a way of life.
“[T]his very unnatural [sitting] posture is not only bad for your back, your wrists, your arms, and your metabolism, but it actually switches off the fundamental fueling systems that integrate what’s going on in the bloodstream with what goes on in the muscles and in the tissues,” he says.
As a consequence of sitting, your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, and toxic buildup all rise. The solution to these adverse events do not involve a prescription—all you need to do is get up, and avoid sitting down as much as possible. If you’ve been sitting down for a full hour, you’ve sat too long, and the cellular mechanisms involved in the maintenance of your body and health are shutting down!
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