Wondering how much damage you’re doing to your body by sitting on your keister all day? Turns out it could be a lot — and replacing sitting with standing might not make much of a difference.
“When people sit for a long time, it increases risk for obesity, diabetes and premature death,” says Dr. Srinivasan Beddhu, professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah. Why? Well, when you’re sitting, you’re not burning many calories, so any excess food you consume is stored as fat. When fat mass increases, it creates oxidative stress in your fat tissue, which can lead to inflammation, insulin resistance, diabetes, high blood pressure and other problems, Dr. Beddhu says. In other words, nothing good is happening to your body when it’s in a La-Z-boy (or office chair).
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Taking a Stand Against Sitting
Not willing to sacrifice your health for a comfy seat? In a recent study, Beddhu and his fellow researchers explored how to counteract the side effects of sitting. Based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers examined the habits of 3,243 study participants. Each person wore an accelerometer to measure the intensity of their daily activity, and their health was monitored for three years after the data was collected. Based on this information, researchers could estimate whether participants were sitting, standing, walking or doing more vigorous activities at any given time throughout the day.
“It just means two minutes more of activity, and two minutes less of sedentary activity.”
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Unfortunately, just standing up to stretch every now and then might not be doing you much good. “What we found was that on average people sit for about 35 minutes per hour, and if you trade two minutes of that for standing-intensity activities, there’s not a benefit,” Dr. Beddhu says. “Yet, when you trade two minutes of sitting for casual walking-intensity activities, there was a lower risk of death.”
Walking the Walk
Before you set your timer and head off on a two-minute stroll, Beddhu is quick to point out, “It just means two minutes more of activity, and two minutes less of sedentary activity. If a person is only doing eight minutes of light activity, they should [strive to do] 10, or if they could adjust it further that would be better.”
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While much attention has been given to high-intensity exercise, this research might finally give lower-intensity activity its moment in the spotlight. “Current national guidelines focus on moderate physical activity so it was fascinating to see that light activity was associated with lower risk of death,” Dr. Beddhu says. However, this doesn’t mean you should trade your weekly HIIT sessions for casual strolls. “It’s very important that people do the moderate [to] vigorous activity as recommended, that is important for cardiovascular [health].”
The first way to battle the side effects of sitting: Practicing sedentary awareness. “The first thing people should be aware of is how long they’re sitting,” Dr. Beddhu says. He suggests setting your phone alarm to remind you to get up and take a walk around the office every half hour at work. Or, if you’re at home watching TV, use the commercial breaks as reminders to get up and move. “We should be taking frequent breaks from sitting,” Dr. Beddhu says. “How many breaks you need per hour is controversial, but at least a couple of breaks per hour might be good.”