Sitting Too Much. Can it Kill You?

Sitting Health Risks

Wow, that’s a pretty charged title isn’t it?  I know I don’t exercise or move my body as much as I should but sitting too much killing me?  Are you kidding?

Nope.

The human body is a kinetic motion machine.  As we have discussed in previous posts, it is designed to move.  It is supposed to run and jump and hunt and gather. 

Before the industrial revolution, human beings had to move constantly all day in order to survive.  They had to hunt and plant and butcher and harvest and chop wood and start fires and prepare food and bake bread and wash and then start it all over the next day. This kind of lifestyle never allowed for much sitting around.  People were moving from sunrise to sunset.

Compare that to the typical lifestyle we have in 2011.  Now instead of moving all day in order to make our living, we typically sit still in a chair in front of a desk or a computer. 

We are rewarded in work, transportation, entertainment and even in our social lives by sitting still in a chair.  We sit to drive, to eat, to work at computers, to watch TV and to socialize.

Culturally we have evolved into very sedentary beings. 

Sedentary behavior is typically defined as any behavior with an exceedingly low energy expenditure. In general, this means that almost any time you are sitting (e.g. working on a computer, watching TV, driving) or lying down, you are engaging in a sedentary behavior.

Up until very recently, referring to someone as sedentary meant simply that they were not meeting current guidelines for physical activity. In simple terms, if you were exercising for 60 plus minutes per day, you were considered physically active. If you were exercising 10 minutes per day or less, you were sedentary.

As it turns out however, sedentary time is closely associated with the same health risks regardless of how much you exercise every day.  So you can still be considered very sedentary even while exercising vigorously for an hour or more everyday.

What?  How is this possible?  I thought by going to the gym and doing my workout every day I was doing something good for myself and for my health.

Now don’t get me wrong.  This news does not mean you should give up your workouts.  Physical exercise is definitely something that has many benefits. But, make sure that you don’t fall into the habit of exercising for an hour and then sitting still for the remainder of the day.

Both exercise and moving your body more throughout the day need to be addressed to be at your healthiest.  This can be summed up with the following:

Sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little.

Let’s look at how sitting still relates to your health and how it can potentially kill you.

A 2009 study by Dr Peter Katzmarzyk and colleagues showed that the more time spent sitting was associated with an increased risk dying from any cause and risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was also increased. 

The interesting thing about this study was that it showed that those increased risks of dying were independent of how much a person exercised!  Even after controlling for age, smoking, and physical activity levels, the people who sat the most were 50% more likely to die in the follow up period than those who sat the least.

So what this means in simple terms is that all things being equal, the person who sits the most will be more at risk of dying than the person who sits the least.

Hence, sitting can kill you.

Ok, so clearly that’s the bad news.  There is some good news for those of you that have jobs that require you to sit for many hours in a row.

The Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle (AusDiab) Study showed that important indicators of health such as waist circumference, body mass index, glucose tolerance, blood lipid levels were improved the more breaks that were taken during sedentary behaviors.

Those who took breaks more often while sitting at a desk or while watching TV were less obese and had better overall levels of health. 

So if you have a ‘sitting’ job or you know you are guilty of sitting still in your leisure time, then try to take small breaks every once in awhile to decrease your overall health risks.

Some practical tips to add more movement into an otherwise sedentary day are as follows: 

       Walk up or down the stairs instead of taking the elevator.

       While working at your computer, set an alarm for every 30 minutes to get up and wiggle and stretch and move for 2 minutes then get back to work.

       Pace while you are on the phone….don't sit in your chair

       If possible have a desk that can move from seated to standing height so you can change it up throughout your day.

       Some people have a treadmill desk where they walk as they type at their computer or as they read which will definitely add more movement to a job that usually involves only sitting.

       Sit on an exercise ball or an exercise disc while in front of your computer, it will keep your core musculature active and is much better than sitting still on a chair.

       When you are watching TV, get up and move every commercial to make yourself some tea or go to the washroom or even do a couple laps around the room.

       When driving for long distances, try to get out of the car and stretch every hour.

So as much as it seems strange to think that you are putting your health at risk with sitting still even when you diligently work out everyday, the evidence is clear that sitting too much really can kill you….or at least put you more at risk of dying.

So get your body moving with exercise definitely but throughout your day as well.  You will be healthier and happier as a result!

I think it’s time for a break. :)

Peggy

 

Dr. Peggy Malone is a Chiropractor and an Athlete who helps other athletes to overcome injury and get back to their sport. She also inspires patients from all walks of life to take control of their health to be as happy and as healthy as they can be.

A former varsity Basketball and Rugby player, she has since entered the world of endurance athletics where she has completed 2 Ironman Triathlons, 3 Marathons, several Half Marathons and many other Triathlons, Road Races and Off-Road Adventure races of varying distances.

Her own athletic endeavors and injuries have given her valuable insight into working with athletes in her practice for both the care of injuries as well as for the improvement of athletic performance.

Her eBook Shin Splint Solutions has helped hundreds of athletes get past the pain of Shin Splints and get back to doing what they love.

 

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13 Comments
  • Sharon O'Day
    May 2, 2011

    Peggy, this made me think about how the computer has changed things.  Think about a secretary in the 1970s.  She typed a letter at her desk and took the finished letter out of her typewriter.  If she needed copies, she got up and walked to the Xerox machine.  Then she walked back to her desk, filed the copies somewhere, then sat down and typed an address on an envelope.  After putting the original in the envelope, she walked to the postage machine, printed postage on it, and walked the envelope to wherever mail dropoff was.  Today she'd sit at her computer from start to finish, never moving anything other than her fingers.  Scary!
     

    • Dr Peggy
      May 2, 2011

      Sharon, What a great comment! It’s a good reminder that although modern technology has definitely improved some areas of our lives in a big way, those changes have in many ways affected our health as a culture too. New and improved is not always perfect!

  • Tara Geissinger
    May 2, 2011

    WOW! I am completely guilty of sitting at my computer too long. :) I know it — and I often feel bad about it — but I had NO idea that it could be doing that much long-term damage! Thanks so much for this post. I am sharing it w/ friends and going to move forward remembering to get up and stretch. 

    • Dr Peggy
      May 2, 2011

      Hi Tara,
      I’m glad it struck a chord with you. I also found this information surprising when I first came across it. Gotta get moving!!! :)

  • Olga Hermans
    May 2, 2011

    Great article and great motivation to get us up and going. Sharon is also so right on. I get up every so often to get some water of do something; I always liked to do that, now I know I HAVE to. Thank you very much for this information!
     

    • Dr Peggy
      May 2, 2011

      Olga, I’m so glad you can use the information in a practical way. I think it’s important for all of us to be aware of the fact that our cultural evolution toward sitting still for hours on end is wreaking havoc on our bodies and our health.

  • Mari Ann Lisenbe
    May 2, 2011

    Great article, Peggy.  My parents are 99 & 97, and still live active lives. I think the biggest key to their longevity is that they ALWAYS stay active. Even during times they've been hurt or ill, they get back to taking care of themselves and their daily activities as soon as possible (even though they initially may not have felt like it! 
    Thanks for spreading the word about staying active… btw… where can you get one of those treadmill desks?  Awesome idea  :-)

    • Dr Peggy
      May 2, 2011

      Wow, thanks for sharing this Mari Ann. I love to hear about older people who are reaping the benefits of the actions they took when they were young….and are still taking. A great inspiration for all of us to stay more active.
      As for the treadmill desks, I’m not sure where the average consumer can get one. I’ll keep you posted when I find out more! You could get creative with a regular treadmill and building a desk around it :)

  • Mari Ann Lisenbe
    May 2, 2011

    Great article, Peggy. My parents are 99 and 97 – and I believe the fact that they have always remained active is a huge contributing factor in their longevity.

    btw… where can I get one of those treadmill desks :-)

  • Dr Dan Vitale
    May 2, 2011

    Great reminder for all of us! Even though I teach these principle every day it is important to be reminded often.  I put a sticky on the top of my screen on either my laptop or desktop to remind me to improve my posture and/or move my body.  As a runner being inactive and in a fixed poor position for a very long time and getting up and putting the running shoes on will affect running gait and running (tight hip flexors, weak glutes, tight pecs, anterior head posture, etc).
    Also remembering that as humans we are actually animals that respond to the stresses (good or bad) imposed on our bodies on a daily basis.  Even though we don't hunt or gather anymore, if we are eating out of a box or a window this may be not be the best for our overall health!
    Keep up the great reminders and current research Dr. Peggy!

    • Dr Peggy
      May 2, 2011

      Thanks for your comments Dr. Dan! I’m glad you are passing on such great information everyday in your practice:)

  • Carol Douthitt
    May 2, 2011

    I'm standing as I'm typing this!;-)  Now I'm walking to the kitchen to get some lunch… then instead of coming back to my computer… I just decided to go for a walk through in the pines.  Thanks for reminding me about the seriousness of staying active and adding some stretches and walks throughout my day.  I really needed this!;-)

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