By Yelena Sukhoterina
Our society is suffering from an epidemic of what some might call “sitting disease.”
On average a person sits for 7.7 hours a day and that number goes up to 15 hours for some, as was discovered in a study by Vanderbilt University. Combined with an average of 7 hours of sleep, we are spending more of our time inactively rather than actively and that has serious health consequences.
“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death,” writes Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic in his book Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.
Just Exercising Is Not Enough
The World Health Organization’s official recommendation on physical activity for a healthy adult, 18-64 years of age, is 2.5 hours of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week.
For additional health benefits that time should be increased to 5 hours and 2.5 hours respectively.
Previous research has shown that following these recommendations lowers rates of heart disease, some cancers, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome.
However, numerous new studies have brought to light that adding even intense physical activity to an otherwise very inactive work and home life, does not balance out the negative effects that extended hours of sitting have on the body, and sitting for a long time may override all the benefits received from exercising.
“Exercise is not a substitute for activities that come naturally throughout the day, 365 days a year, for the rest of your life,” writes NASA scientist Joan Vernikos in Sitting Kills, Moving Heals.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), spending prolonged time sitting without taking breaks to get up, increases the risk of many cancers, obesity, heart disease, type II diabetes, back pain, spine deterioration, and stress.
Multiple other studies have shown that sitting contributes to the risk for arthritis, cholesterol problems, dementia, infertility, kidney problems, muscle aches, carpal tunnel, sleep apnea, osteoporosis, depression and insomnia.
Since 1950s the number of people with diabetes in the U.S. increased 17 times. One in three adults has high blood pressure, and that puts them at greater risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. The number of people with illnesses ranging from life threatening such as cancer to types of back pain is also skyrocketing. There are many more lifestyle-related habits at play here, however, the chair disease is greatly adding to the issue.
Sitting Increases All-Cause Mortality Risk
Numerous studies (see here and here) have found a strong correlation between sitting for a long time and all-cause mortality. Every hour spent sitting shortens life expectancy by 22 minutes, according to Professor David Duncan from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute of Australia.
Two other Australian scientists found out that sitting for 11 hours a day puts a person at 40% more risk of premature death than sitting for 4 hours a day. Another Australian study has found that 6% of deaths globally are caused by inactive lifestyle.
How Sitting Affects Your Body
“The ill effects of sitting, the chair disease, are a shopping list of misery,” writes Dr. Levine.
- Heart: Sitting for a long time slows down the blood flow, makes more fatty acids clog the arteries, and elevates blood pressure. It raises bad cholesterol and increases the risk for heart disease, as shown in an experiment by Professor Mark Hamilton from Louisiana. He made people sit the whole day and took blood measurements before and after. Even in those who originally had normal cholesterol, the triglyceride (a type of fat) values rose as if they had cardiovascular disease.
- Pancreas: Sitting, especially after a meal, contributes to an overproduction of insulin, which may lead to diabetes. After eating a meal the pancreas produces more insulin, and the blood sugar rises to feed the vital organs, said Yogish Kudva from the Cricketers’ Brain Trust. It gives us the energy to get up and do active work. But when we sit, that sugar doesn’t get used. Instead it becomes fat, and eventually may lead to diabetes.
- Head: When sitting, every brain activity slows down, and that can cause fogginess and trouble concentrating. When we move, oxygen is being pushed through the brain and it balances the mood chemicals. For those at risk for or who experience depression, sitting becomes the illness’s fuel. Standing up and walking at least 30 minutes a day is a good preventative for getting or worsening depression.
- Bone density: Under normal circumstances a person loses 1% of bone density per year starting as early as the age of 20.12 If a person is spending a lot of time sitting, it will drop faster. When that happens, a person may start feeling off balance in early 20s and be at risk for bone diseases in 40s and 50s. It’s not how old we are, but how fast do we age that puts us at risk for osteoporosis and other bone illnesses.
- Back: When the spine doesn’t move, the soft disks between the vertebrae lose their softness and are pushed together unevenly. The spine often becomes misaligned and inflexible, and is easily damaged by simple activity. Sedentary lifestyle therefore leads to back pain, sore shoulders, and a greater risk for a herniated disc.
- Neck: Being desk-bound the whole day at work, and tilting the head to look at the computer, cell phone or tablet, may cause improper spine alignment leading to insomnia, sleep apnea, headaches and migraines.
- Stomach: Sitting slows down the metabolism and decreases the number of digestive enzymes. Sitting burns significantly less calories than standing. The JustStand.org calorie-burning calculator shows that during an 8-hour work day, a 150-lb adult will burn 924 calories sitting and 1,200 standing. All three factors contribute to the risk of obesity.
- Legs: Sitting has a negative effect on muscles and bones. Muscles start to deteriorate when not used. Bones get strong with activity, inactivity may be attributed to weak bones. Sitting also causes poor blood circulation leading to fluid gathering in legs and that may lead to varicose veins, swollen ankles, and muscle cramps.
Calculate How Much You Sit
JustStand.org created a simple Sitting-Time Calculator that you can use to find out exactly how many hours a day you spend sitting – it’s probably more than you think! The sitting time includes any desk-jobs, driving, eating, and many after-work leisure activities, such as watching TV, playing board games with the family and friends, and reading.
How to Spend More Time Standing and Moving
“If we can find sustainable ways to get people up while at work, there are millions of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars that can be saved,” writes Dr. Levine.
The solution to the sitting disease is simple – we have to make it our responsibility to stand up and move more throughout the day.
Why stand? Standing burns about 20% more calories than sitting, it helps tone the muscles, raises metabolism, improves posture, and increases blood flow. And any type of movement helps prevent cancers by naturally producing antioxidants to fight free radicals.
Here are a few ideas you can incorporate into your life!
Remember that making small changes is less stressful, and you are more likely to succeed in creating new habits when taking things one step at a time.
- Use a standing desk, a convertible desk, or a treadmill desk at work or home office
The Take-a-Stand Project Case Study published by the CDC found out that using a convertible sit-stand desk reduces back and neck pain by over 50%, cuts sitting time by over an hour a day, and improves the workers’ mood. The researchers state that the results suggest using this sit-stand desk at work may produce further health benefits over longer period of time.
Some companies including Google and Facebook have started incorporating standing desks into their offices. The American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a new policy on sitting in 2013 to encourage employers to offer alternative sitting to their staff, such as standing desks, according to their press release. If your company has not provided you the option yet, educate your coworkers and your bosses, and together ask your company to install convertible desks at your workplace.
Desks like the UpDesk UpWrite have adjustable height, VARIDESK Pro can be stationed on top of your existing work station, and TrekDesk is a treadmill desk (originally invented by Dr. Levine). There are dozens of options to choose from! You can also make your own desk by repurposing a furniture piece such as a bar table, bookshelf or a cabinet. The only guideline is that its height needs to be about at your elbow length.
- Monitor how long you sit and plan to stand up and stretch every half hour.
The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity recommends five minutes of activity for every 30 minutes of sitting. If you are at work, you can use this time to go get a glass of water or clean up your desk. If you need to talk to your co-workers a few cubicles or offices down the hall, whenever possible and practical, make it a habit to walk over there and talk to them rather than sending an email or a text message (your work communication might improve as a bonus!)
- Install an app to track how many steps you take every day.
Use an app (or purchase a pedometer) to track how many steps a day you take. For a healthy adult, the recommended number of steps to take daily has been chosen to be 10,000 based on current evidence.
There are a lot of free or inexpensive apps to choose from, such as WalkLogger and Steps Mania for Android or Pacer and Runtastic Pedometer Step Counter for Apple. Some apps have a very simple interface and only keep track of the steps, others can also count calories burned and time spend walking or running, and let you talk to others or get exercise ideas.
- Have walking meetings at work (or walking conversations at home)
The TED.com Blog outlined how and why many famous thinkers, such as Charles Dickens, Harry S. Truman, and Sigmund Freud, chose to have walking meetings. Walking meetings get rid of many distractions and bolster brainstorming and the creative flow of ideas.
- Bike or walk to nearby places
It has been estimated that adding just 18 minutes of walking or bicycling to your daily commute would cut the risk for premature death by 13% and decrease the risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke, and depression.
Your gym or local grocery store is less than a mile away? Get on a bike or walk to it. If there are no pedestrian or bike paths anywhere along the road where you live, write to your local government asking for them. There are more and more designated roads being paved now, and the more people ask, the more of them we will see in our near future.
- Find another route or time to commute
It has been estimated that U.S drivers combined spend 6 billion hours stuck in traffic every year. In a big city such as Los Angeles, it is about 72 hours a year per person. When possible, avoid driving during peak hours. Wait for Sunday morning to go to a grocery store and stock up for a week instead of going after work.
Find a gym or a yoga studio near your job and go there before driving home. You might avoid a lot of traffic, and are more likely to stick to an exercising schedule. (Motivation tends to drop after getting home. Find a coworker to go with you for extra motivation). If you have a flexible work schedule, come in and leave work earlier or later to avoid rush hour.
- Take a 15-minute walk after every meal.
The body needs to burn off the blood glucose increased right after eating. Walking after a meal will help protect against diabetes.
- Stand up during TV commercial breaks or the long loading time of your computer.
You can go to another room for a few minutes to say hi to your family members (they probably haven’t heard from you in hours!), check up on your pets, or go into the kitchen to start thinking about what to make for dinner. Other small tips you can use throughout the day:
- Use stairs whenever possible.
- If you are commuting by a public transport, stand instead of sitting down.
- When watching your favorite TV show, combine that time to also do stretching or exercising.
- Use your lunch break to do some exercise. Even 10 minutes can make a difference when it’s consistent.
- Get a dog or find a physical activity that you don’t have to force yourself to do.
- Get an audio book and go for a walk or run.
- Choose a more active get together with friends or relatives. Instead of going out to eat at a restaurant or to the movies, try a new hobby together, go to a park or go hiking, or discover a local town.
- MedicalBillingandCoding.org created a poster summarizing how “sitting is killing you”:
- RallyHealth.com made a graphic with great tips for standing more:
- Dr. Levine’s book “Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It” is a fantastic and well-researched resource for detailed information on how sitting affect us and what to do about it.
- AsapSCIENCE YouTube channel made a short informative video “Are You Sitting Too Much?”
- Berkowitz, B. & Clark, P. “The health hazards of sitting.” The Washington Post. Published: Jan. 20, 2014.
- Biswas, A, Oh, PI, Faulkner, G. E., Bajaj, R. R., Silver, M. A., Mitchell, M. S., et al. “Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Ann Intern Med. 2015; 162:123-132.
- Gross, J. “Walking meetings? 5 surprising thinkers who swore by them.” TED. 2013.
- Kravitz, L. “Reducing Sedentary Behaviors: Sitting Less and Moving More.” American College of Sports Medicine. 2011.
- Levine, J. A., Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It. 2014. p. 21, 66, 69-73, 77, 89, 91, 119.
- Matthews, C. E., Chen, K. Y., Freedson, P. S., Buchowski, M. S., Beech, B. M., Pate, R. R., & Troiano, R. P. (2008). Amount of Time Spent in Sedentary Behaviors in the United States, 2003–2004. American Journal of Epidemiology, 167(7), 875–881. doi:10.1093/aje/kwm390
- Neighmond, P. “Sitting All Day: Worse For You Than You Might Think.” NPR. 2011.
- Peck, E. “Why Walking Meetings Can Be Better Than Sitting Meetings.” The Huffington Post. 2015.
- Taylor, K. “Get Up, Stand Up, For Your Life: Can Standing Desks Fight Sitting Disease?” Forbes. 2012.
- Tudor-Locke C. & Bassett D.R. Jr. “How many steps/day are enough? Preliminary pedometer indices for public health.” Sports Medicine. 2004.
- Van der Ploeg, H. P., Chey, T., Korda, R. J., Banks, E., & Bauman, A. “Sitting Time and All-Cause Mortality Risk in 222 497 Australian Adults.” Arch Intern Med. 2012; 172(6):494-500. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2174
- Vernikos, J. “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals.” 2011.
- Watson, S. “Too much sitting linked to an early death.” Harvard Women’s Health Watch. 2014.