Only about one in four people get the number of exercise experts recommend for good health. To make matters worse, the average Americans spends too much time sitting. Gone are the days when people worked at jobs that involved lots of movement. It may be easier in one sense, but there are downsides. Research shows time spent sitting is an independent risk factor for health problems like heart disease and type 2 diabetes AND premature death irrespective of time spent doing structured exercise.
A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2008 measured the amount of time Americans spent sitting. To do this, they had over 6,000 healthy children and adults wear an activity monitor for almost 14 hours a day. At the end of the week, they measured their cumulative activity. Guess how much time they spent sitting or engaged in sedentary behavior? An average of 7.7 hours. That’s a little over half the time they were awake.
Sedentary Behavior: Children versus Adults
As you might expect, kids between the ages of 6 and 11 were the most active of all. During the teen years, activity levels fell on average by about 2 hours a day. Active time picked up again in the 20s and then dropped again to around 7.3 hours a day in participants in their 30s. The least active were people between ages 60 and 75. This group spent over 9 hours a day being sedentary. During childhood, the teen years and young adulthood, males were more active than females. That trend was reversed in people over age 60.
What does this study tell us? Kids and adults in the United States spend over half their waking hours sitting or doing something sedentary. For many, that’s watching television or working on the computer.
Why Sitting is Bad
According to a study published in BMJ Open, cutting back to 3 hours or less a day of seated activities could prolong lifespan by as much as 2 years. To reach this conclusion, they looked at data from a large study called the NHANES trial along with the results of several other studies. This isn’t the only study to come to a similar conclusion. Other research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a greater risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The reality is you can’t compensate completely for sitting too much by doing a regular workout. Both structured exercise and movement throughout the day are important for good health. In fact, research shows sitting too much is on par with smoking when it comes to harming your health. Pretty sobering!
How Much Are You Sitting?
Keep track of how much you sit during the day. You may be unpleasantly surprised. If you work at a desk job, you sit almost eight hours a day before heading home from work. What do you do when you get home? Hopefully, you work out. But if you sit in front of the computer or the television set for a few hours after your exercise session, you’ve been sedentary most of the day. Even a workout can’t make up for that.
How to Reduce Sedentary Behavior
To reduce the amount of time you spend sitting, you have to be aware you’re sitting too much. That’s where tracking your sitting time comes in. So begin by keeping track of how much time you spent in a chair. The good news is even short periods of movement break the sitting cycle and help get your blood flowing. You can stay more active even if you work in front of a computer. Set a timer on your computer or phone to go off every 30 minutes. When it does get up and walk around. At the very least, do some stretching exercises and breathe deeply. Push your chair back and do squats. Don’t worry about who’s watching. You’re doing it for your health.
Rearrange Your Office
These days, some people are equipping their office with a treadmill desk or putting a pedal device under their desk so they can pedal while they work. You can also elevate your computer with books and create a standing work station. Standing burns about 30 more calories an hour compared to sitting. Wear high heels to work, if you must, but keep a pair of comfortable shoes to wear around the office so you’ll feel more like being active. Take a brisk walk during lunch. Wear a pedometer at the office and try to increase the number of steps you take during office hours.
When you get home, reassess how you’re spending your time. Cut back on computer and television time and spend more of your leisure time doing an active hobby. Take the dog for a walk or ride a bike around the neighborhood after work. It’s a good way to relieve stress too.
The Bottom Line?
Regular structured workouts are important – no doubt about it – but so is simply moving more. Keep track how much you’re sitting and set up a system to remind yourself not to sit for more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time without taking a movement break. Living an active lifestyle is about more than being active for the hour or so you’re working out. Stay active, be healthier and live longer. It’s worth it.
Am. J. Epidemiol. (2008) 167 (7): 875-881. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwm390.
BMJ Open. “Sedentary behavior and life expectancy in the USA: a cause-deleted life table analysis doi 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000828”
WebMD. “Sitting Too Much May Lead to Diabetes, Heart Disease”
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