What's Wrong With Sitting?

What's Wrong With Sitting?

It all started off with a study in the '50s showing the difference in heart health between bus drivers and conductors, here's what the latest research has to say

What’s the Problem?

Until recently, those of us who sit at a desk all day thought we could make up for a lot of sitting time by doing 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.

However, several new studies from around the world, have discovered that this may not be the case after all. It seems that even the moderate exercisers amongst us could be putting our health at risk by sitting for long periods.

Professor Stuart Biddle, of Victoria University in Australia, says,

“If someone goes to the gym or walks for 35-40 minutes a day, but sits down the rest of the time, then they are still described as having a sedentary lifestyle.”

So, even people who do the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week, may still be classed as sedentary if they spend hours on end sitting at a desk or on the sofa. 

Many of us do desk jobs, get around in a car, and spend leisure time sitting in front of a screen.

Research suggests that adults in the UK average around 9.5 hours of sedentary time each day, increasing to 11 hours a day in people over the age of 75.

One of the largest recently published pieces of research found that, in comparison to people who sit the least each day, people who sat the longest had:

  • 112% increase in the risk of diabetes
  • 147% increase in cardiovascular issues
  • 90% increase in death caused by cardiovascular issues
  • 49% percent increase in death from any cause

Prolonged sitting is also linked with slowing down the metabolism. Especially unhelpful if you’re trying to lose weight. Professor Biddle says,

'Essentially, they body is shutting down while sitting and there is little muscle activity,'

This means your body burns fewer calories.

That said, another recent study published in the Lancet, using data from over 1 million people, found that the harmful effects of prolonged sitting could be diminished by doing moderate exercise daily, for longer periods. The example given in the study was 60-75 minutes of walking at 3.5mph. 

Three and a half miles an hour is actually very brisk. For many people, this would be at the top end of ‘moderate’ or going into the ‘intense’ category of exercise exertion. 

Evidence has been Building for Decades

Although the recent studies have brought sitting time into the news, it's not new news. In fact, the link between sitting and illness was first highlighted in the '50s, when London bus drivers and conductors were part of a study. 

Back then, the drivers were found to be more likely to have heart attacks than the conductors.

NASA also looked into the issue in the '70s with their astronauts. It found that life in zero gravity was linked to accelerated bone and muscle loss along with ageing. NASA concludes: “Sitting for an extended period of time is thought to simulate the effects of weightlessness in astronauts”.

What Can the Deskbound Do to Protect their Health?

Some companies around the globe have introduced 'standing desks'. These are desks that are higher so you are able to stand and work rather than sitting. They come with a stool so you can rest but, essentially, they encourage standing and moving around.

Researchers in Texas have been studying the benefits of standing desks in Elementary Schools. One of the authors of the study, Mark Benden, says,

“Research around the world has shown that standing desks are positive for the teachers in terms of classroom management and student engagement, as well as positive for their health, cognitive functioning and academic achievement. It' literally a win-win, and now we have hard data that shows it is beneficial for health and weight control.”

Researchers found that those children who used the standing desks burned 15 percent more calories as well a 3 per cent drop in BMI.

But refurbishing the office with standing desks may not be immediately possible. So what else can people who sit at desks for long periods of time do?

Professor David Dunstan of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Australia says,

“All-day movement is now seen as being just as important for the maintenance of good health as traditional exercise.”

If you sit at a desk all day while working:

  • If you travel to work by bus or train, stand up for the journey
  • Get off the bus or train a few stops earlier and walk the rest of the way
  • If you drive, park as far away from the building as you can and walk from there
  • If you need to speak to a colleague, walk to their desk rather than calling or emailing
  • Stand or walk around while you are on the phone
  • When smokers in the office go for a cigarette, go with them and walk around the car park
  • Move your rubbish bin and other essentials away from your desk so you have to move to use them
  • Make sure you have a plentiful supply of water and replenish your glass or bottle in the kitchen regularly
  • Download apps or set your activity tracker to remind you to get up and stretch or move around every hour
  • If a meeting lasts longer than 90 minutes, ask for a stretch break half way through

If you are at home or are retired:

  • Use an app or activity tracker to make sure you move
  • Get up and move around during the ad breaks
  • Put the remote on top of the TV so you have to get up to change channel
  • Use resistance bands to do foot curls or arm curls while watching TV
  • Spread the household chores out throughout the day to make sure you have to keep getting up
  • Take a walk round the garden, round to a friend, to the shop or for a coffee

If getting up from your desk or off the sofa regularly really isn’t possible, try to fit in 60-75 minutes of moderate exercise a day – brisk walking will be fine, but you may find you need a few weeks or months to build up to 3.5mph if you’re not very fit.

Fidgeting Helps

Even fidgeting or toe tapping at your desk or while you are sat on the sofa can help to some degree. A new study has shown that fidgeting can help protect the arteries in your legs, increase blood flow and potentially prevent arterial disease.

Lead author of the study, Jaume Padilla of the University of Missouri, says,

“Many of us sit for hours at a time, whether it's binge watching our favourite TV show or working at a computer. We wanted to know whether a small amount of leg fidgeting could prevent a decline in leg vascular function caused by prolonged sitting. While we expected fidgeting to increase blood flow to lower limbs, we were surprised to find this would be sufficient to prevent a decline in arterial function.”

The study involved 11 healthy young men and women. Researchers compared their leg vascular function after 3 hours of sitting. Participants fidgeted one leg intermittently, tapping one foot for 1 minute and then resting for 4, moving their foot 250 times a minute on average. The researchers found the leg that was fidgeting had a significant increase in blood flow.

So if you can’t get up from your desk and move around regularly, the next best thing is having a good fidget.

Get moving

Although more research and studies are needed to work out how much actual time sitting is detrimental, the general consensus is that we should be doing at least 150 minutes of targeted exercise each week as well as making sure we keep moving throughout the day.

It's not all bad news, though. The added benefit to all of the extra movement is bound to have an effect on our waistlines. Bonus!

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