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Food, Health, and Eco-news
The Silent but Damaging Effects of Sitting
Exercise is great, but don’t be fooled: Excessive sitting can blunt or eliminate its benefits 10/24/2016

Note: This article originally appeared in October, 2016

Our ancient ancestors hunted, gathered, and otherwise moved to survive.

Absent furniture, they stood or squatted, which engages muscles and maintains blood flow.

In fact, chairs and couches may rank among the unhealthiest — albeit convenient and beloved — inventions of all time.

Modern life demands very little physical activity. When was the last time you hunted game, cut wood, hauled water, or picked your own crops?

Instead, people drive or take mass transit to work, sit in an office for eight hours, walking mostly to the water cooler or bathroom and perhaps getting out for lunch.

They drive back home, assemble a quick dinner, and then retire to the couch to watch TV, read, or surf the Web.

Smoking, lack of exercise, and junky diets jeopardize your health. But a recent evidence review concluded that excessive sitting is as bad or worse. (Thorp AA et al. 2011)

The exercise delusion

You may exercise daily to build muscle, lose weight, or just feel better.

Exercise also reduces the risks for heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and certain cancers.

Most people who exercise probably assume that it makes up for sitting from 8 to 12 hours at work and home.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. In fact, sitting undoes many, if not all, of the benefits of daily exercise.

For example, Australian researchers found that the benefits of 2.5 hours of moderate to vigorous exercise were canceled by long periods sitting in front of the TV.

And just because you exercise every day doesn't mean you move enough at other times.

A Northwestern University study among women aged 40-75 years — who wore activity monitors — showed that those who routinely engaged in moderate-to-vigorous exercise sat just as much as their non-exercising peers (Craft LL et al. 2012)

Sedentary lifestyles rule

Thanks to TV, the Internet, driving, and hypnotic smartphones, we sit far more than our ancestors did … a habit with hidden, highly unhealthful costs.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic put it this way:
“Compared with our parents or grandparents, we are spending increasing amounts of time in environments that not only limit physical activity but require prolonged sitting. Work sites, schools, homes, and public spaces have been (and continue to be) re-engineered in ways that minimize human movement and muscular activity.” (Owen N et al. 2010)

And studies show that we are more likely to eat — and to drink soda or alcohol — while watching television. Those mutually reinforcing behaviors promote weight gain, higher blood pressure, and higher blood sugar levels.

Frequent movement deters disease and disability

Routine movement doesn't equal vigorous exercise, but brings critical benefits.

Like exercise, it boosts mood, improves blood lipid (fat-cholesterol) profiles, and discourages weight gain, albeit to lesser extents.

That's probably because the human body evolved in response to the frequent movement needed to survive, and malfunctions in its absence.

Although routine movement isn't considered exercise, it's probably more important to basic health.

The consequences of constant sitting are more damaging than you might realize, as it raises your risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, and colon cancer.

And recent research reveals other dismal outcomes:

  • Canadians who reported sitting several hours a day were found to suffer significantly risks of early death, compared with their more active counterparts. Those higher mortality rates were found even among sedentary people who exercised (Owen N et al. 2010). 
  • Australians who reported high levels of TV watching over 6.5 years were more likely to die from heart disease. Every hour of TV time created an 18 percent increase in the risk of death from heart disease. Those who watched four or more hours of TV daily were 80 percent more likely to die from heart disease, independent of other risk factors like smoking or diet (Owen N et al. 2010). 
  • A 21-year University of South Carolina study involving 7,774 men found that those who spent more than 10 hours a week in a car were 82 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease, compared with those who rode less than four hours per week. And the men who reported more than 23 hours a week of sedentary behavior were 64 percent die more likely to from it, compared with those who clocked less than 11 hours of inactivity (Warren TY et al. 2010). 

Just remember to stand or move

Recommended remedies are obvious: stand, exercise, or walk briefly every hour.

Standing was once considered sedentary — and it's not as good as walking or other movement — but new research shows that it does provide some benefits.

Standing works anti-gravity muscles, and promotes production of a skeletal muscle protein (lipoprotein lipase) that improves blood lipid profiles (lower triglyceride and higher HDL cholesterol levels).

Ideally, you would move slightly while standing at your desk, such as shifting your weight from side to side or lifting your knees periodically. (Standing on a treadmill at your desk is increasingly popular, but many people find it difficult to type or talk while walking.)

A Minneapolis HMO conducted a seven-week study in which one group used a sit-stand desk, while the comparison group continued to sit at their desks. Within the first two weeks, the sit-stand group reduced sitting time by an average of 66 minutes per day, reduced upper back and neck pain by 54 percent, and improved their mood (Pronk NP et al. 2012).

(Sit-stand desks are easy to find in office stores and on the Internet. The editor of this newsletter uses one that slides up and down at the push of a switch.)

A Dutch-British team wants people to start using the acronym STUFF, meaning “stand up for fitness” (Rutten GM et al. 2013)..

They urge people to stand or walk for at least five minutes during every 30-minute period of sitting. As they wrote, “… we would hope to hear people say: ‘OK, the meeting has now been going on for half an hour, time to stuff'.”

The trick is to remember to get up and stay up for 5 minutes — preferably moving about — every 30 to 60 minutes. Just set an alarm on your computer or use an egg timer. There are also many computer and smart phone apps that will alert you at chosen time intervals.

These are 7 easy ways to move more without getting overwhelmed:

  1. Use a stand-sit workstation.
  2. Take stairs instead of elevators or escalators.
  3. Leave your car, bus, or subway further away from your destination.
  4. Set a timer to remind you to move. Alternate 50 minutes of sitting with 10 minutes of brisk walking, jumping jacks, or squat-thrusts. 
  5. Aim for 10,000 steps daily. Smartphone apps and devices such as FitBit can help you track those numbers.
  6. Find an accountability partner at work to remind you to move more. You could even make it a contest to see who can move more.
  7. Use down time to move. Get up during TV commercials, take a walk around the block rather than surf Facebook, and walk up and down your stairs while coffee is brewing.

As Bob Marley and the Wailers once sang, “Get Up, Stand Up”!


  • Alkhajah TA, Reeves MM, Eakin EG, Winkler EA, Owen N, Healy GN. Sit-stand workstations: a pilot intervention to reduce office sitting time. Am J Prev Med. 2012 Sep;43(3):298-303. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2012.05.027.
  • Craft LL, Zderic TW, Gapstur SM, Vaniterson EH, Thomas DM, Siddique J, Hamilton MT. Evidence that women meeting physical activity guidelines do not sit less: an observational inclinometry study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012 Oct 4;9:122. doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-9-122.
  • Dempsey PC, Owen N, Biddle SJ, Dunstan DW. Curr Diab Rep. 2014;14(9):522. doi: 10.1007/s11892-014-0522-0. Review.
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