We all know that exercise is just as important as the types of food we eat. But have you heard just how dangerous sitting really is? A new study by German researchers Daniela Schmid and Dr. Michael Leitzmann of the University of Regensburg in Germany published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute finds sitting too much is the new smoking — Sitting has been compared to smoking as a leading cause of numerous deadly diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, not to mention disability and obesity.
Another comparison with smoking is that even if you do exercise, but are still sitting a lot, the side effects of sitting are just as prevalent as if someone has stopped smoking several years ago! In other words, even if you are an avid runner or have a regular exercise program, and you are still sitting prolonged amounts during the day, these studies are suggesting that you are still at risk for dying early and potentially incurring dramatic health challenges.
In a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers reported that people spent an average of 64 hours a week sitting, 28 hours standing, and 11 hours involved in non-exercise walking, whether or not they exercised the recommended 150 minutes a week. That’s more than nine hours a day of sitting, no matter how active they otherwise were. Even the highest level of exercise doesn’t deter from the long number of hours people are still sitting each day.
In fact, regular exercisers may make less of an effort to move outside their designated workout time. Research presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine from Illinois State University reports that people are about 30 percent less active overall on days when they exercise versus days they don’t hit the road or the gym. We can appreciate that. One hour or more of P90X can wear us out so we think we are good for the day. But experts say most people simply aren’t running or walking or even just standing enough to counteract all the harm that can result from sitting eight, nine or 10 hours a day.
Unless you have a job that keeps you moving, most of your non-running or non-exercise time is likely spent sitting. And that would make you an “active couch potato”—a term coined by Australian researcher Genevieve Healy, Ph.D., of the University of Queensland to describe exercisers who sit most of their day. If they aren’t careful, she says, active couch potatoes face the same health risks as their completely inactive counterparts.
For every two hours spent sitting in front of the computer, television, or just sitting, the average person raises his or her risk of colon cancer by 8 percent, of endometrial cancer by 10 percent and of lung cancer by 6 percent. According to Alberta Health Services-Cancer Care in Canada, inactivity is linked to 49,000 cases of breast cancer, 43,000 cases of colon cancer, 37,200 cases of lung cancer, and 30,600 cases of prostate cancer a year.
As if that weren’t enough to make you sad, a 2013 survey of nearly 30,000 women found that those who sat nine or more hours a day were more likely to be depressed than those who sat fewer than six hours a day because prolonged sitting reduces circulation, causing fewer feel-good hormones to reach your brain.
It’s still not clear what it is about sitting that raises cancer risk. “Prolonged sitting time lowers energy expenditure and displaces time spent in light physical activities, which consequently leads to weight gain over time,” Schmid and Leitzmann wrote. “Moreover, TV viewing can be accompanied by increased consumption of unhealthy foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets, and fast food,” they added. It could be as simple as obesity, which itself is a major cause of cancer. Or it could be more complicated.
“Your body is designed to move,” says author Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., professor and director of the inactivity physiology department at Pennington Biomedical Research Center. “Sitting for an extended period of time causes your body to shut down at the metabolic level.” When your muscles, especially certain leg muscles, are immobile, your circulation slows. So you use less of your blood sugar and you burn less fat, which increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Indeed, a study of 3,757 women found that for every two hours they sat in a given work day, their risk for developing diabetes went up seven percent, which means their risk is 56 percent higher on days they sit for eight hours. And a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology reports that a man who sits more than six hours a day has an 18 percent increased risk of dying from heart disease and a 7.8 percent increased chance of dying from diabetes compared with someone who sits for three hours or less a day. Although running does much good for you, if you spend the rest of your waking hours sitting, those health benefits depreciate. In a 12-year study of more than 17,000 Canadians, researchers found that the more time people spent sitting, the earlier they died—regardless of age, body weight, or how much they exercised.
Adding to the mounting evidence, Hamilton recently discovered that a key gene (called lipid phosphate phosphatase-1 or LPP1) that helps prevent blood clotting and inflammation to keep your cardiovascular system healthy is significantly suppressed when you sit for a few hours. “The shocker was that LPP1 was not impacted by exercise if the muscles were inactive most of the day,” Hamilton says. “Pretty scary to say that LPP1 is sensitive to sitting but resistant to exercise.”
What Can You Do?
There are simple ways that people can counteract the negative effects of too much time on your behind. You need to stand up at least once an hour, if not every half hour, and move.
Workout at your desk (or on the couch)
Just because you are corralled in an office doesn’t mean you can’t move. All it takes is 10-minute exercise break throughout the day. Some ideas include:
- Bring a kettle bell and place it beside your desk. Pick it up every 30 minutes for 5 repetitions
- You can easily do wall squats or use small weights and do a few reps at your desk throughout the day
- 50 stand-ups
- Squatting into your chair
- 100 arm rolls forward, 100 backward, 100 with palms up, and 100 forward (you might remember these from elementary school gym class)
- 20 paper clip pick ups (a sneaky way of squatting)
- 10 to 15 desk push-ups
- Take a walk to re-fill your water glass or take a walk during your break
- If you have a meeting, instead of sitting around the conference table, walk around the table … it may keep you awake and you’ll pay more attention
Sit on a stability ball
Sitting on a stability ball, instead of in an office chair, can be an easy way to increase activity. To sit balanced on the ball (instead of rolling and wobbling around), people need to engage their core muscles. While people are sitting on the ball, they are working on their abdominal muscles.
Take a stand
Standing desks keep employees on their feet, instead of planted in their chairs. Ann has been using a standing desk for years. Even if your office doesn’t have standing desks, get on your feet to work. Stand up while you take a phone call or stand when reading emails. If it is possible, opt for a treadmill desk, which uses a special treadmill that runs slowly so people are walking as they work.
Find an excuse for the stairs
Even if an elevator is more convenient, the stairs may provide you with a better quality of life.
Since these studies prove beyond a doubt that sitting is just as hazardous to your health as smoking, isn’t it time to realize that even if you have never smoked a cigarette in your life, your chances of dying an early, untimely death are no better if you are sitting for 6 or more hours each day?
Help us help others to get the word out that without movement, your body cannot sustain quality of life no matter how many juices, smoothies or salads you consume every day.
Kick the sitting habit and make your muscles move!