What research says about balancing the risks of sedentary behavior
Find yourself sitting for countless hours a day? Perhaps you have a job that ties you to an office chair for hours on end. Working from home doesn’t help (at least for me), as now the walk to the breakroom or bathroom is mere steps away. Regardless of the numb feeling in your butt, we can do something to offset the negative consequences of sitting too long.
A metanalysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed nine studies from four countries that followed 44,000 participants for 14 years. Unlike previous studies that relied on self-reported data, these subjects wore activity trackers, like Fitbits.
During the course of these studies, 3,000 participants died. While dying subjects is never a good thing, the researchers were able to gain a lot of information about mortality and what could eventually mitigate risks to dying from conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular events, and other poor health outcomes.
Ultimately, they found good news for those who have no choice but to sit for hours on end. Thirty to forty minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day can help offset the risk factors associated with a sedentary lifestyle. However, no amount of activity can help if you sit for 10 hours or longer.
You may have seen alarming headlines the past few years claiming sitting is the new smoking. While prolonged lounging can be harmful, it’s not as bad for your increased risk of death as inhaling potentially addictive, toxic chemicals directly into your lungs.
That said, research links prolonged sitting to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol, and excess body fat around the waist (a condition known as metabolic syndrome).
Physical guidelines from the UK, USA, and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend adults should participate in at least moderate-intensity physical activity for 150–300 minutes every week. They also state that people should move more and sit less throughout the day and that any activity is better than none.
Humans were meant to mostly stand upright. While there’s nothing wrong with relaxing (in fact, there can be negative consequences related to standing too long), sitting for more than two hours at a time can cause hip flexors and hamstrings to tighten and contribute to low back pain. It’s also a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
What the New Research Says
An article on PTDC.com sums up what the researchers found when they combined the data from their metanalysis:
Those who spent the most time sitting had higher mortality rates, no matter how much exercise they got, compared to those with the least sedentary time.
Those who got the most moderate to vigorous physical activity had lower mortality rates, no matter how much time they spent sitting, compared to those who got the least exercise.
Translation: exercise can offset the risks of prolonged sitting to a degree, but you’re still at higher risk than those who are more active throughout the day.
What exactly is moderate to vigorous physical activity? Anything from walking at a brisk but conversational pace to an all-out sprint qualifies. It’s essentially anything that elevates your heart rate for the amount of time recommended.
If you don’t have 30 or 40 minutes at a stretch, jog up and down the stairs or walk around the block for 10 minutes after every meal. You can break up your exercise throughout the day and still see a benefit.
Breaks in Sitting are Also Important
A study in Diabetes Care found that increased breaks in sedentary time were beneficially associated with waist circumference, independent of time spent exercising. This means that even if you plan a workout later in the evening, you will benefit from breaking up the time you spend sitting.
The authors note,
The beneficial association of breaks in sedentary time with metabolic markers may also reflect higher total energy expenditure in those with more frequent breaks. Even activities as minimal as standing, rather than sitting, have been shown to result in substantial increases in total daily energy expenditure and resistance to fat gain.
It’s important to remember this is an observational study, making it difficult to prove cause and effect. People who stand often could be healthier in other ways, including diet and lifestyle factors. Although we know more activity (including frequent standing) leads to higher calorie burn, which is important for maintaining healthy body weight.
The researchers defined prolonged sitting as anything lasting more than two hours. At least if we’re stuck watching movies from home, we can hit the pause button long enough to stand, stretch and move a little bit.
What else can you do to mitigate the effects of sitting for long periods?
- Set a reminder to get up and walk five minutes every hour.
- Stand or pace while talking on the phone.
- Use a height-adjustable desk so you can alternate between standing and sitting.
- If you’re in an office, walk to a colleague’s desk vs. sending an email.
- Use the bathroom on a different floor.
- Perform a few minutes of situps, pushups, squats, and/or lunges each hour.
- Ask the meeting organizer (or set the tone if you are the lead) if you can have a five or 10-minute break for each hour the meeting continues.
I often hear from clients how they don’t have time to exercise every day. If you allow yourself eight hours of sleep each night, you have 16 hours in your day to find time to move in a way that gets your heart pumping.
I get you may not have the ability to change into workout gear and head to the gym, but you don’t need anything more than a pair of sneakers to take a walk. Small efforts will add up.
If you’re looking for a place to start, get an activity tracker, and commit to increasing your total calorie burn over time. Seeing how many steps you take daily or trying to meet an activity goal can be highly motivating. You can also share data with friends and family and make your daily totals into a healthy competition. Your life could depend on it.
Here’s a reminder of what the research says:
- Thirty to forty minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day can offset a sedentary lifestyle's risk factors.
- No amount of exercise can offset more than 10 hours of sitting.
- Even with exercise, it’s important to remain active throughout the day.
- Avoid prolonged periods of sitting (more than two hours at a time).
Photo credit: By pathdoc