Is sitting in a chair parked in front of a computer monitor part of your job description? For many people it is. Inactivity, hours spent sitting in a chair, is a growing problem in modern society, and one that’s not conducive to satisfactory long-term health.
How much do you move around during the day? Ask most fitness buffs and they’ll tell you they ARE active because they work out every day, but inactivity comes in another form – spending hours at a stretch sitting in a chair at the office or at home. In fact, the latter form of inactivity is strongly linked with a greater risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Even worse, research shows sitting for more than 6 hours a day is connected with higher all-cause mortality even if you do a structured workout. So strong is the risk of prolonged sitting that the Lancet, an esteemed medical journal, points out that the effects being deskbound could be more dangerous than smoking.
If you have an office job, you might be tempted to get a standing desk so you can stand while you work rather than sitting in a chair. Well, that’s a start! You’ll burn 30 to 40 more calories hourly when you stand as opposed to sit, but, based on a new study, it probably won’t mitigate the health risks of sitting. The good news? This study showed a 2-minute walk each hour is enough to offset some of the health risks of habitual sitting.
In this study, researchers measured the activity level of more than 3,000 participants using accelerometers and followed their health status over a 3 year period. Based on the data, they found that taking a 2-minute walking break for each hour of sitting reduced the participants’ risk of dying by 33%.
Even Physically Active People Can Be “Inactive”
You might think fitness enthusiasts who do a daily workout would be more active over the course of a day than their buddies who don’t set foot in a gym and haven’t embraced the home fitness movement. According to a study carried out by Northwestern University, this isn’t the case. Women who work out at home or at the gym spend just as much time sitting as those who don’t do structured workouts, on average. The reality? Regular exercisers spend an average of 9 hours a day being inactive. In fact, people who exercise may feel like they’re entitled to sit for the rest of the day because they DID complete a workout.
You might assume doing a HIIT training routine or hitting the weights in the morning or when you get home from work makes up for the 8 hours you spent sitting at a desk, research shows this isn’t the case. No matter how intense your structured workouts are and how committed you are to doing them, it won’t make up for 9 hours of couch potato behavior. Instead, you need to break up periods of sitting with walking.
Why is Sitting for Hours at a Time Harmful?
When you sit for an hour or more without doing some activity, it turns off an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase that normally takes up lipids, or fats, circulating in your blood. With lipoprotein lipase not doing its job, blood fats stay in circulation longer, creating a situation that’s not conducive to heart health. Plus, without activity, everything slows down a bit, including your metabolism as your body partially ‘hibernates.” Needless to say that isn’t good for your waistline or your health.
Break Up Sitting with Walking
Working in an office, you may have limited exercise options, but you probably have opportunities to get up and walk around. It’s easy to get so involved in what you’re doing that you forget, so set an alert on your computer or smartphone to remind you to get up and walk for several minutes every hour. Stretching at your desk, while helpful for reducing stiffness, won’t wake your body up enough to offset the negative impact of sitting.
What can you do to counteract the effects of sitting? If you have steps at your workplace, tackle them during your hourly short walks to further get your heart rate up and tone your hamstrings and glutes. If you have the chance, use your lunch break to take a walk outside. An outdoor walk is the ultimate opportunity to de-stress and clear your mind so you can be more productive.
What about Stand-Up Desks?
As mentioned, you’ll burn more calories standing than sitting, but you still need to make time to take walk breaks to ‘wake up” your body and keep it out of hibernation mode. One option that would have benefits, although not all offices are set up for one, is a treadmill desk. Treadmill desks are a treadmill with an attached table for a computer so you can walk at a gentle pace while you work.
The Bottom Line
Lack of structured physical activity is a health risk, but so is sedentary behavior and one doesn’t compensate for the other – you need both! Even if you work out for an hour a day, you should still avoid sitting too long on the job and at home. As you can see, the amount of physical activity you need to break the sitting cycle is small, two minutes of low-intensity exercise like walking around or going up and down the stairs. Getting up to walk every hour or so is a small thing you can do that could have a big impact on your future health.
Keep this in mind too. If you exercise one hour a day and sleep eight hours, you still have 15 hours unaccounted for. If you’re spending much of that time sitting, you’re doing your body a disservice. Over a 15 hour period, the little things you do add up – taking the stairs rather than the elevator, walking around when talking on the phone, parking far away and taking short walks whenever you can. For some people, wearing a pedometer or wearable tracking device helps them remember to stay active. If that works for you, do it.
Science Daily. “Walking an Extra Two Minutes Each Hour May Offset Hazards of Sitting Too Long” April 30, 2015.
Science Daily. “Even Physically Active Women Sit Too Much” October 31, 2012.
Diabetes November 2007 vol. 56 no. 11 2655-2667.
WebMD. “Physical Inactivity May Be as Deadly as Smoking” July 2012.
The Lancet. Volume 380, No. 9838, p219-229, 21 July 2012.