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Sitting: A silent killer?

We sit all the time. When we’re reading, watching TV or working. Chances are you spend more of your waking hours sitting than any other activity. For me, I’m sitting down while writing this blog. And you’re probably sitting while reading it.

We can’t help but sit. It’s comfortable and as activities become more automated, we’ve engineered our lives to sit. The average American adult sits for more six hours per day and this has increased by 15% since 2001. However, many people sit even more than that. Consider the number of office jobs where people sit almost all day and then add in sitting during leisure time. And right now with the COVD-19 pandemic, we’re all probably sitting a bit more.

palpitine sitting

Sitting is A Silent Killer

The amount of sitting we do, and the consequences to our health, are so bad, some call sitting the new smoking. While sitting isn’t quite as bad as smoking, it isn’t good either.

Your body is like one of those cars that shut down every time it comes to a stoplight. When you sit, after a while, your engine slows. While this is efficient, it has negative consequences. When you sit, your energy needs go down. As a result, enzymes (proteins that speed up chemical reactions) shut down. This leaves sugars and fats to circulate in our blood stream. And higher levels of blood sugars and fats are risk factors for diabetes and heart disease.

Indeed, sitting is associated with diabetes, heart disease, cancer and early death. For every two hours of TV viewing, the chances of getting diabetes increase by 20%, 15% for heart disease and 13% for early death. Recent research indicates increased sitting also contributes to changes in the brain associated with poor memory and cognitive impairment. In teens, sitting is associated with a greater risk for depression.

If you’re active, great, but sitting isn’t just the opposite of being active. While the two are related, sitting seems to result in health risks even if someone is active. Many of the studies above took into account physical activity levels people did and sitting was still associated with worse health. Even in people who walked nearly two hours each day, those who sat for more than six, had a 20% greater chance of early death than those who sat for less than three hours per day.

standing at work

Standing, the Solution to Sitting Less?

As a solution, many people have turned to and advocated the use of standing desks. This is based on the premise that if sitting is bad for you, then anything else other than sitting most be good for you. Standing desks definitely reduce sitting time, no doubt about that. And while standing does burn more calories than sitting, the difference is only about 15%.

However, health is not just about calories and standing also creates its own set of problems. Standing for long periods may lead to back pain, and can increase your chances of getting varicose veins. Standing also doesn’t seem to alter the effects of sitting on fats and sugars in the blood. And on the job standing has been associated with twice the chance of heart disease compared to sitting.

In addition, sitting is better at stabilizing your body for when you to fine work like drawing or using a computer. Standing doing these activities can lead to greater muscle and skeletal fatigue. Having both a sitting and standing desk can help address the muscle and skeletal fatigue, however, it’s movement that matters.

It’s Movement that Matters

The problem with sitting, and standing for that matter, is the lack of movement. So the real solution is to move more. The good news is it doesn’t take much movement. Even getting up and walking around for as little as two minutes every 20 minutes has been shown to reduce blood sugars by more than 20% compared to continuous sitting. This is because even that little movement turns your body’s enzymes back on.

An easy way to remind yourself of the need to get up and walk around is to use a cooking timer or the timer on your phone or computer. Set it to go off every 20 to 30 minutes, and get up and walk around for a couple of minutes. Take this opportunity to do some household chores, which can be as intense as some exercises.

Other ways to interrupt your sitting is to walk, whether in your home or outside, when taking phone calls. Have walking meetings with family, friends or work colleagues. If you’re watching TV, get up during commercials or walk in place while watching. And lastly, make sure you get in 20-30 minutes of moderate activity per day.

Using these simple steps will help you be more active, and refresh your body and mind as well.

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12 responses to “Sitting: A silent killer?”

  1. Diana Holland Avatar

    Dr. Scott, I read you blogs faithfully and am encouraged and they help to keep me on track to a healthier life style. We humans always need reminders to do it right or we slip back into our bad habits.
    I also forward your blog to my girlfriend of forty odd years. She has put the pounds on each year, and is so over weight that life in general is an effort for her. She has told me she reads your blogs, that they are good. Today she phoned and told me that she had lost over 20 lbs. Hopefully she is on track to a healthier life style. Thanks for encouraging two gals out there!

    1. Thanks Diana! That’s wonderful to hear. Writing the blogs keep me on track too 🙂 Great to hear about your friend and send her my congratulations. Stay healthy, Scott.

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