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Are We Sitting Ourselves to Death?


Why Sitting Less Could Mean a Longer Life 

By Brittany Doohan  

If you're sitting at work or lounging around on the couch while reading this, you may want to stand up — a recent study published in the British Medical Journal suggests that all the time you spend sitting may be taking years off your life. 

Researchers from Pennington Biomedical Research Center and Harvard Medical School took a closer look at the results of five studies involving more than 167,000 adults that investigated the connection between sitting and the risk of dying from any cause over a 14-year period. They also looked at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how much time Americans spend sitting, and more closely examined the health risks of sitting. Americans sit for an average of 7.7 hours a day (almost twice as much as other countries!), and those who work in office jobs or have a long commute may even sit more. Based on the data they collected, the researchers estimate that sitting less than 3 hours a day could bump up life expectancy by 2 years; reducing the time spent watching TV to less than 2 hours a day could add 1.5 years onto your life. 

Are you on your feet yet?

This latest study backs up previous research suggesting that sedentary behaviors — like sitting — and long periods of inactivity are directly linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and obesity, and therefore a higher mortality risk, especially for women. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology by the American Cancer Society found that women who sat more then 6 hours per day had a 37 percent higher chance of death during the time of the study than their peers who sat no more than 3 hours per day, while men had an 18 percent higher chance.

Regular exercise helps to lower your risk for the serious health problems associated with an inactive lifestyle. But if you're spending the majority of the day sitting (like most Americans who work in an office and like to relax in front of the TV in the evenings), simply making a point to hit the gym after work may not be enough to make up the difference.

"Sitting time increases risk of early death, irrespective of physical activity levels," said Alpa V. Patel, PhD, Strategic Director at the American Cancer Society. However, Patel did add that being physically inactive and spending the majority of the day sitting is even worse, and that both men and woman should aim to both move more and sit less for a longer, healthier life. 


How sitting slows your body down

As modern technology makes it effortless for us to do just about everything without moving an inch, it can be easy to forget to move around once and a while. When you sit, your body becomes inactive. Lipoprotein lipase, the enzyme that grabs bad fats (like lipids and triglycerides) from your bloodstream and converts them to fuel for the body, slows down. Inactivity also causes the levels of good cholesterol in your body (the kind that can help protect against a heart attack) to drop. The longer you sit, the more fat builds up in your blood; over time, that buildup can increase your risk for heart disease and other major health problems.

Plus, inactivity can lead you to make other choices that negatively affect your health. 

"Sitting time, especially while watching television, is associated with other unhealthy behaviors (such as excess snacking) that lead to weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes," said Patel.

Sitting for prolonged periods of time is also linked to metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions — including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar level, abnormal cholesterol levels and excess body fat around the waist — that occur together), which can increase your risk of heart diseasestroke and diabetes.


Stand up for your health: Small changes make a difference 

Whether you're at the office or at home, there are plenty of alternatives to being glued to your chair. You can choose moderate energy-boosting alternatives like sitting on an exercise ball, which forces you to flex your abdominal and back muscles, or a rocking chair, which requires continuous flexing of the calf muscles.

If you're into more dramatic alternatives, try a standing desk or treadmill desk. But beware: Standing or walking while you work may seem like a healthy alternative, but doing it all day can be tiring, and can increase your risk of thickened arteries and varicose veins. If you have the option to stand while you work, alternate standing and sitting throughout the day.  

If you can't modify the space in which you work, try changing some of your daily habits to incorporate a little more movement; little changes can make a big difference. If you need to talk to a coworker, walk over to their desk instead of emailing them. Take a stroll around the block at lunch instead of eating inside the office (even a short 15-minute walk can clear your head, warm up your muscles and get your blood pumping). 

Patel recommends taking short three- to five-minute breaks every hour to walk around or stretch. Small chunks of time can add up throughout the day.

"At the end of a full work day, this can reduce time spent sitting by one hour," she said. 

Remember: the consequences of sitting may be severe, but the solution is simple. Get up and get moving!


Published July 24, 2012. 

Brittany Doohan is a health and lifestyle writer living in San Francisco.

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