It’s no secret that too much sitting is harmful to your health and well-being. When you sit too long, your body goes into hibernation mode. Just as a hibernating bear’s physiological processes becomes dormant when he retreats to his den for the winter, the same happens to you when you sit too long. Your metabolism slows and lipids build up in your bloodstream. Plus, insulin sensitivity takes a nosedive and your blood sugar rises. Over time, these changes can lead to weight gain, pre-diabetes, and a higher risk of heart disease. Some studies even show that frequent sitters have a greater risk of some forms of cancer.
Sitting is harmful to your metabolic health too. According to a study published in Diabetologia, sitting boosts the relative risk of type 2 diabetes by 112% & the risk of dying prematurely by 50%. The study also found that frequent sitters had 147% higher odds of dying of a heart attack or stroke.
How Much Do People Sit
Now that we know why it’s harmful to health, how bad is the sitting problem? Would you believe half of all people sit for at least six hours per day? That’s a lot of time spent with the glutes planted in a chair! Research shows that even on the weekend, people spend a good portion of the day sitting. Plus, with the average person sits, they do it in an ergonomically unfriendly manner. As a result, sitting too much leads to back pain, poor posture, and neck pain. Humans weren’t designed to sit most of the day, and it takes a toll on their health.
To make matters worse, a new study shows that sitting for long periods of time is also linked with the accumulation of fat around the organs. As part of the study, researchers at the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre asked 124 individuals at high risk of type 2 diabetes to wear an accelerometer for seven days. Accelerometers measure the time a person is active during the day. Then, they measured the amount of fat around a key organ, the liver. The liver has a large range of functions from detoxifying your body to synthesizing bile to help you metabolize fat and when it’s not healthy; it impacts every aspect of your health.
What did the study show? Individuals who sat more had greater fat accumulation around their liver and more total abdominal fat. Even when the researchers controlled for other factors, the link between sitting and build-up of liver fat held. Fat accumulation was even greater in those who didn’t meet the minimum exercise recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.
More sitting leads to the accumulation of more liver fat. A scary thought! Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is now an epidemic. In fact, about 25% of the population in Western countries has some degree of fatty liver and many don’t know it. These numbers are expected to increase as people become more obese and live longer. Some health experts call it the next health tsunami. Far from being benign, the fat that accumulates around the liver can become inflamed. About 20% of cases progress to scarring of the liver, liver cancer, permanent loss of liver function or even death. Obesity is a strong risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease too.
Can you make up for too much sitting? Previous studies show that exercising 30 minutes daily, the minimum recommendations, doesn’t compensate for the metabolic impact of six or more hours of sitting per day. However, a more recent study found that exercise for a full hour each day may partially offset the effects of too much sitting, at least to some degree. If you sit, at least make sure you’re getting an hour of moderate-intensity exercise daily or 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise. It matters!
Other Ways to Compensate for Too Much Sitting
If you’re forced to sit at work, take more movement breaks! The new term for this is “micro-breaks. “ A micro-break is where you get up and moving around for short periods throughout the day. A walk around the office or up and down the stairs is ideal, but even standing up and stretching is better than doing nothing. If you have the chance, opt for a standing desk and move your feet around when you stand at your desk.
How often should you take a micro-break? Every 30 minutes if possible. When you get up, move around, and stretch, you not only break the sitting cycle, you lower your risk of developing a blood clot in the legs. When you sit too long in one position, blood pools in your legs and the risk of a dangerous blood clot forming and moving to the lungs goes up. Blood clots that move to the lungs can be deadly. If you take hormone replacement therapy, birth control pills, or smoke, your risk of blood clots is even higher.
Even if you’re forced to sit on the job, don’t take the sitting habit home with you at the end of the day. A double dose of sitting is even more harmful–and that’s what some people do. They sit at the office and watch television or work in front of a computer when they get home. They compound their sitting even when they don’t have to. The more sedentary your job, the more important it is that you stay physically active before you go to work and when you come home.
The Bottom Line
Sitting too much can damage your internal organs and not just your heart. Inactivity is linked with the build-up of fat around the liver too and that’s a potentially serious health condition. Remember, sitting too much is a risk factor independent of whether you do a formal workout. Doing a structured workout and staying sitting less are both important for staying healthy. Know of their importance and look for opportunities to push your body up out of the chair and move. It’s your health at stake!
Diabetologia. 2012 Nov;55(11):2895-905. doi: 10.1007/s00125-012-2677-z. Epub 2012 Aug 14.
Int J Mol Sci. 2016 May; 17(5): 774.
Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2010 Jul; 38(3): 105–113.doi: 10.1097/JES.0b013e3181e373a2.