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Why Sitting is Bad for Your Health

January 26, 2015

If you’re like most Americans, you probably spend more hours sitting than standing each day. Between the normal activities of sitting at your office desk, driving to and from work and watching TV at night, you may not even realize that you're sitting as much as you are.

Recent research indicates all that sitting may be slowly killing us.

While this may sound extreme, it is true. Sitting increases the risk of disability, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.

The outcry against sitting has become so loud that some have even equated it to the threat that smoking caused to previous generations. While I wouldn’t go that far, I think the larger point is that sitting for long periods of time, day in and day out, doesn’t help you stay healthy. For most of us, increasing the amount of time we spend standing, walking and being active can have a significant positive impact on our health.

Why sitting is bad for you

Doctors initially thought that people who sat more were probably less physically active than those who didn’t, which may have accounted for the increased health risks associated with sedentary behavior. However, research indicates that there’s not really a high correlation between sitting too often and not exercising enough. Studies have shown that even people who engage in strenuous exercise after sitting all day can still encounter health problems.

This isn’t surprising. When you’re sitting, you burn 50 fewer calories per hour than when you stand, and your muscles undergo several metabolic changes. Researchers think the latter occurrence may be because sedentary muscles release a lower amount of lipase, an enzyme that helps to burn fat and maintain HDL cholesterol, or “good cholesterol.” Our bodies also develop greater insulin resistance when we sit, and the genes involved in suppressing inflammation also change, which could lead to health issues such as cancer.

In the last century, our culture has shifted to encourage sitting almost everywhere people go, whether it’s the movie theater, airport or even while waiting for a takeout order at a local restaurant. For those of us who work in a traditional office setting, the problem is compounded, and the amount of time that we spend upright can be significantly limited.

What can you do to sit less at the office?

Sedentary work stations are probably one of the greatest hidden health hazards that many of us face. However, with some easy behavior modifications (and maybe some help from your employer), you can make the workplace better for your health.

Larger companies often have policies through which employees can have their work stations evaluated and adjusted to meet certain ergonomic standards. Doing this can help reduce carpal tunnel syndrome, back and neck pain. Some people also use abdominal balls at their desk to help strengthen core muscles and reduce chronic back pain over the long term.

While those are good first steps, they stop short of addressing the biggest health hazard, which is sitting.

Recognizing the dangers of sitting, some innovative companies such as Google and Facebook have begun to offer their employees the option of using a standing desk. This greatly increases the amount of time spent standing and moving, improving circulation and burning 400 more calories per 8-hour workday, on average.

If your company hasn’t bought in yet, talk to your employer about how some tests suggest that standing desks can boost productivity—that might make them think hard about making the investment.

If a standing desk isn’t an option, you should still incorporate some form of movement or non-sedentary activity into every hour of your work day. Make time to leave the computer and walk from one corner of the office to another. If you’re on the phone and have access to a headset, you even can take the call while walking around the office. During lunch, take a brief walk around the building, which is good for both your mind and body.

What about when you’re at home?

If you watch several hours of TV each night when you get home from work, cutting it down to just an hour or two can reduce sitting time—and the likelihood you’ll experience the health risks associated with it. Even if you take a short break to stand up and walk during sitting periods, this brief respite could lower your risk for obesity, heart disease and other health conditions.

Don’t forget that exercise also has significant health benefits. I recommend getting 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days per week. This can include walking, running or participating in your favorite sport. You also can tweak this to incorporate strength training, which is good for your bones and muscles. If you don’t have room in your schedule for 30 minutes of exercise a day, start small. Even 10 or 15 minutes of physical activity is better than sitting all day. So, get moving and stay active. Every little bit helps. 

Concerned about how to keep your family healthy?

Find a primary care physician close to you.

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