Why is Sitting so Bad for You?

“Sitting is the new smoking.” You may have heard this provocative public health tagline recently. I think it’s a bit much (I will explain) but excessive sitting, also known as sedentary behaviour, has been shown to increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. If you’re trying to live a long and healthy life, managing your sedentary time is a must.

The idea of sedentary time as not simply a lack of exercise, but rather a distinct set of behaviours that carry health risks independent of exercise participation, is a relatively new one. The health benefits of exercise are well documented, and for decades, it was the firm belief of scientists and policy makers that as long as you reached the recommended amounts of physical activity and exercise, that you would “cancel out” any ill-effects of prolonged sitting. We now know that this is not true, and that the total time spent seated carries with it certain health risks, even if you exercise daily.

The idea of a “sedentary exerciser” sounds like an oxymoron at first, but it’s quite common. I fit that description when I was attending university. I diligently hit the gym 5 to 6 times a week, but outside of those workouts and intramural sports, I was either sitting in class, or the library, or at my friends’ house playing video games. As time went on and I learned more about sedentary behaviour (and my training goals shifted from “looking buff” to “being healthy”) I’ve come to include long walks in my weekly routine, as well as making a conscious effort to break up my seated time during the day. I have noticed a relationship between sedentary time, joint stiffness, mental clarity, and overall energy. I emphasize reduced sedentary time with my coaching clients who are seeking to improve posture, lose weight, and improve their health.

Why is sitting so bad for us? We’re still figuring that out, but the current theory is that it has to do with glucose and lipid metabolism, your body’s ability to break down and use sugars and fats. The health risks associated with excessive sugar are well documented (1, 2, 3).

Prolonged sitting, particularly for intervals of 3 hours or more, impairs our ability to metabolize sugars. Sugar has the potential to be harmful in part because it is the only food that we regularly consume that cannot be excreted by our kidneys, and thus, any sugar you consume stays in your body. If you exercise regularly, your body will be able to use that sugar to replenish glycogen stores used during your last workout. However, if you never or rarely exercise, the sugar is either going to be stored as fat, or circulate in your blood stream and bind to an important protein such as hemoglobin and impair that hemoglobin’s ability to do its job. Excessive sitting increases the likelihood that any sugar consumed is going to cause problems rather than be used for fuel. Impaired glucose metabolism is one of the first steps on a path that leads to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, which of course comes with increased risk of heart disease, kidney failure, amputation and blindness.

Excessive sedentary time causes musculoskeletal problems as well. Most work stations are not set up in a way that encourages ideal posture, and when working long hours at a computer our necks tend to drift forwards, and our shoulders upwards. Even if you’re sitting with ideal posture, your hamstrings and hip flexors are in a shortened position and gradually become tight, which can lead to back pain and impaired athletic performance. This video explains the concept of muscles being locked long/locked short in more detail:

One thing I need to address is that the health benefits of standing vs. sitting have little, if anything, to do with energy expenditure, or the number of calories burned. This idea became popular after well-known physical therapist and Crossfitter Kelly Starrett began to push for standing desks in elementary schools. The now famous (or infamous) line, depending on who you ask, was: “Kids with high body mass index can burn upwards of 30 per cent more calories a day standing. That’s childhood obesity wiped out. All you have to do is stand.”

He was right about the first part. According to this study that investigated differences in energy expenditure at a standing or seated desk, sitting burns 1.02 calories per minute, where standing burns about 1.36 calories per minute. So, a seated person is going to burn 60 calories an hour, and a standing person is going to burn 78 calories. Even over a 3 hour period that’s only 54 extra calories, not enough to move the needle on changing obesity status.

We understand that too much sitting is bad for us, but to an extent we’re stuck with it. This is why I’ve never liked the phrase “sitting is the new smoking.” The accepted health guidelines for alcohol and cigarettes are to moderate alcohol consumption and to never smoke.” No one is saying never sit! Sometimes you have to, like if you’re in a car, or if you’re eating. A certain amount of sitting is just fine. What we want to do is break up the time we spend seated. Here are my top recommendations for reducing sedentary time.

Get a Standing Desk
I am an advocate of standing desks, though I do recommend oscillating throughout the day between being seated and standing. You don’t even need to be particularly diligent about the time intervals. Simply sitting for as long as you like, followed by standing for as long as you like is a good way to manage your total seated vs. standing time. Anyone who advocates standing all day has obviously never worked in retail or in a restaurant or any other job that requires you to be on your feet. Although the health effects of excessive standing are not as well described, heavy legs and being tired are all but guaranteed.

Drink Lots of Water
Drinking more water is always a good idea. Increased hydration helps maintain a healthy body weight, improves kidney function, increases cognitive functioning and reduces the risks of headaches. Sometimes when I recommend drinking more water to clients, they complain about how they have to pee all the time as a result. Well, a benefit of that is that you’re (hopefully) getting up to go to the bathroom, and thus breaking up your sedentary time.

Get a Headset for your Office Phone, and Pace your Office During Calls
This one is my favourite. I find walking around the office during a phone call helps me stay relaxed and focused.

Schedule a Walking Meeting With Clients
This isn’t always possible. Some people won’t go for this, and some corporate cultures aren’t there yet, but if you have a client who you think would be amenable to the idea, try it out, it’s fun!

Netflix and Move
I love Netflix as much as the next person, but what’s not great is how the episodes just roll into each other. It is just too easy to get sucked in and park it for 3 straight hours. This takes some discipline, but if you’re settling in for an evening binge session that involves watching 3 episodes of your favourite show, stretch, foam roll, and do other mobility movements during the second episode. You’ll still enjoy your show, but by breaking up the sedentary time you improve your health risk profile and are also reducing stiffness and increasing the likelihood that you will crush your next workout.

Don’t Use the Drive-Thru
Recent research completed at the University of Guelph showed that going into the restaurant was either just as fast or faster than waiting in line at the drive- thru. Not only do you get to break up your long commute, it’s better for the environment.

Remember that even if you’re on top of your workouts, reducing seated time offers additional, important health benefits. As automation continues to make prolonged sitting easier and easier, taking small steps to reduce your seated time will make a big difference to your overall health.

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exercise, physical activity, sedentary behaviour, sedentary time, sitting

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