Chronic sitting actively promotes dozens of chronic diseases, including obesity and type 2 diabetes, even if you’re very fit and exercise regularly
Sitting is an independent risk factor for an early death, with a mortality rate similar to smoking
Standing for at least six hours a day may reduce your risk of obesity by 32 to 35 percent depending on your gender. Men can reduce their risk of obesity by as much as 59 percent by standing 12 hours a day
The evidence is overwhelming and crystal clear: avoiding sitting is a key component of a health-promoting lifestyle.
According to Dr. James Levine, co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative, some 10,000 publications have shown that sitting is harmful to your health.
He was one of the first to bring attention to this controversial subject, and even wrote a book about it called “Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.”
Prolonged sitting actively promotes dozens of chronic diseases, including obesity and type 2 diabetes. Even more remarkable, this holds true even if you’re very fit and exercise regularly.
It’s also an independent risk factor for an early death even if you lead an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
In fact, chronic sitting has a mortality rate similar to smoking.1 And, the less you exercise, the more pronounced the detrimental effects of sitting become. Research also shows that your risk for anxiety and depression rises right along with hours spent in your chair.
Sitting Less Is Key Component of Healthy Living
Most of us have become so accustomed to sitting in chairs that we’ve failed to realize that doing so might actually be biologically and physiologically problematic.
However, if you give it some thought the correlation may become more intuitively clear.
While early man may have sat down on a rock now and then, they certainly did not spend the majority of their days sitting. They had to hunt and gather food on a daily basis, and secure shelter — time consuming tasks that any modern survivalist can attest to.
Even in today’s day and age, studies show that people in agrarian villages sit for only three hours a day. This is a far cry from most office workers, many of whom sit for 13 to 15 hours a day, and probably more in line with our genetic heritage.
Standing for One-Fourth of Your Day Significantly Reduces Your Risk of Obesity
We can now add yet another paper to the growing list of studies demonstrating the health effects of sitting versus standing. Published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, this study2,3 examined the relationships between standing time, obesity, and metabolic syndrome, alongside and independent of exercise.
A total of 7,075 healthy adults of both sexes between the ages of 20 and 79 were included, and the results revealed that:
- Men who stood up for a quarter of the time (about six hours) each day or more had a 32 percent lower risk of obesity
- Men who stood up for about half the day had a 59 percent reduced likelihood of obesity
- In women, standing a quarter, half, and three-quarters of the time each day was associated with a 35 percent, 47 percent, and 57 percent lower risk of obesity respectively
Exercise PLUS Standing Decreases Your Risk of Metabolic Syndrome
Moreover, those who regularly stood up and met weekly exercise guidelines also had a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, compared to those who either did not meet exercise guidelines and/or sat down most of each day.
Among regular exercisers there was a clear dose-response relationship between the amount of time they stood up and their risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome, which led the authors to conclude that:
“Standing a quarter of the time per day or more is associated with reduced odds of obesity. The inverse relationship of standing to obesity and metabolic syndrome is more robust when combined with health-promoting leisure-time physical activity…
Clinicians and public health practitioners should consider encouraging patients to achieve the physical activity guidelines and increase standing time for chronic disease prevention.”
Sitting Kills, Even If You Get Regular Exercise
It’s really important to realize that even an hour of daily exercise cannot undo the harm done by sitting for 10 to 15 hours per day. The key really is to stand up and keep your body in mild motion as much as possible throughout each day. THEN, regular exercise will work synergistically to improve your health, as noted in the featured study where only those who met exercise guidelines and stood up for periods of time during the day were able to reduce their risk of metabolic syndrome.
Another study4 published earlier this year found that, compared to those who exercise often and are hardly sedentary, those who rarely exercise and spend many hours being sedentary have an almost eight-fold increased risk of dying prematurely. So it would seem that it’s the combination of more vigorous bouts of exercise and chronic bodily motion (such as shifting posture while standing) that brings about the greatest health benefits.
A systematic review5,6 that looked at 47 studies of sedentary behavior confirmed that the time a person spends sitting each day indeed produces detrimental effects that outweigh the benefits reaped from exercise.
Sitting was found to increase your risk of death from virtually all health problems, from type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease to cancer and all-cause mortality. For example, sitting for more than eight hours a day was associated with a 90 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Other research7 has found that those who sit the most have a 112 percent increased relative risk of diabetes, and a 147 percent increased relative risk of cardiovascular events compared to those who sit the least. All-cause mortality is also increased by 50 percent.
To counteract the ill effects of prolonged sitting, researchers suggest you:8
- Keep track of how much you’re sitting each day, and make an effort to reduce it, little by little, each week
- Use a standing desk at work
- When watching TV, stand up and/or walk around during commercial breaks
Why Standing Promotes Physical Health
Researchers have, to a great extent, been able to determine why sitting is so detrimental, and how standing promotes health. When you’ve been sitting for a period of time and then stand up, a number of beneficial molecular cascades take place inside your body. For example, within 90 seconds of standing up, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol — which are mediated by insulin — are activated.
Surprising as it may sound, all of these molecular effects are activated simply by carrying your own body weight. These cellular mechanisms are also responsible for pushing fuels into your cells and, if done regularly, will radically decrease your risk of diabetes and obesity. What this tells us is that, at the molecular level, the human body was designed to be active and on the move all day long. When you stop moving for extended periods of time, your body begins to shut down, as if preparing for death.
In short, while we clearly need to rest from time to time, rest is supposed to break up activity; not the other way around. When you make inactivity a way of life, the fundamental fueling systems in your body are switched off, and your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, and toxic buildup all rise.
Chronic sitting can also be a significant factor in back, neck, and sciatic pain. I too suffered from back pain for many years, and none of the treatments I tried made any significant difference — until I began to restrict my sitting to less than an hour per day. Then the pain suddenly disappeared!
Stand-Up Desks Are a Great Solution for Office Workers
Since most of us live lives that revolve around an office chair, a car/bus/train seat, and the couch, most will need to figure out how to eliminate a large number of hours of sitting every day. One solution is to use a standing desk at work. I’m so convinced of the health benefits of standing I’ve equipped all members of my office staff with a standing desk option. There are a number of different styles available. On some, you can elevate and lower the entire desk surface. There are also smaller units that fit on top of your existing desk.
I use to suffer from chronic low back pain until I realized it was my 12 or more hours a day of sitting that was causing it. Since I minimized sitting, I have not had any back pain for over a year now. I typically sit less than 30 minutes a day unless I am travelling. I also seek to move away from my desk at least once an hour.
This much standing can be a problem for some people but if they walk for one to two hours a day, that could radically improve tolerance to this much standing as the lymphatic pump stimulated by that much walking will keep the leg muscles and blood vessels healthy.
I also stand barefoot on a ¾-inch foam grounding mat while I work. In addition to the cushioning it provides, a grounding mat helps you stay grounded to the earth even though you’re indoors, and this too can help relieve chronic pain, reduce inflammation, thin your blood, and enhance your general sense of well-being.
Many people feel better nearly immediately when they swap sitting for standing and regular movement. As one worker who uses an adjustable-height work desk told Time magazine:9
“I definitely feel healthier standing while working as it causes me to be more focused on my posture and ‘hold’ myself better in terms of my stomach and shoulders especially.”
Mind Your Posture When Standing
When you stand, it is indeed important to consider your posture. In the video above, I demonstrate the standing posture taught by Kathleen Porter, author of “Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living“. The terms “happy dog” and “sad dog” posture, which I mention in the video, came about from Kathleen’s work with children who are easily embarrassed or amused by words like “pelvis” or “pubic bone.” In human terms, when you “tuck your tail,” i.e. tuck your pelvis forward, your spine collapses down into your pelvis.
This stance also tends to trigger the reaction to pull your chest up and your shoulders back, which closes, narrows, and shortens your back. This unnatural posture can lead to pain in a number of different areas and should be avoided. Instead, what you’re aiming for is to have your front and back equally wide and equally extended, and it all begins with the position of your pelvis. If you rotate your pelvis toward the back, so your pubic bone is down and your sit bones are wide and behind you, it’s sort of like you’re wagging your tail. This is the “happy dog” posture — a healthy natural posture where your bones are in proper alignment.
For a Healthier Life, Sit Less
The evidence is overwhelming at this point — 10,000 studies and growing — that prolonged sitting will reduce your lifespan by promoting dozens of chronic diseases. As a general rule, if you’ve been sitting for an hour, you’ve sat too long. At bare minimum, avoid sitting for more than 50 minutes out of every hour. Ideally though, I recommend standing up as much as possible.
When I first learned about this, I rapidly cut my sitting down to an hour a day, and now I’m down to about half an hour a day. Using a standing desk is part of the solution, but there are countless ways of getting more standing — and walking — into your life. You can hold walking meetings for example. Stand or walk whenever you’re on the phone, and forgo sitting if you commute to work by bus or train. As mentioned earlier, people living in agrarian communities sit an average of just three hours a day, which would be an admirable goal.
I also recommend challenging yourself to walk 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day, over and above your regular fitness program. Consider getting a fitness tracker that can monitor both the number of steps you take and the number of hours you sleep, as optimizing these factors can have a profoundly beneficial impact on your life, and it’s difficult to modify your behavior if you’re not monitoring it.
I believe this combination of exercise, non-exercise activities like walking 10,000 steps a day, along with avoiding sitting whenever possible is the key to being really fit, and enjoying a long and pain-free life. It’s quite clear that most of us are too sedentary on an hour-by-hour basis. The answer is simple, but it does require a change in how we live. The good news is that the required changes are within your own control.
So I strongly encourage you to start thinking about how you can get more physical movement into your life, every waking hour of every day. Your body will love you for the investment and reward you with many years of pain-free movement in your later years.
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