Sitting Time is Hazardous to Your Health

Did you know that according to recent studies and a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association, prolonged sitting behaviors can raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions, even among people who are physically active.

Whether you are sitting for extended times in a car or train, at work, home or school, it can be harmful to you and a risk factor for early death. And too, the more you sit, the worse it is. 

Facts are that studies show a direct relationship between time spent sitting and your risk of health concerns and early mortality of any cause. 

So what does this mean? Do you take regular breaks throughout your day to actively move following times of prolonged sitting?

Here are important findings and tips providing information on how a few behavior changes can help reduce your risk of death and other health concerns associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Your Sitting 

Why is sitting unhealthy for us?

Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns including:

  • Obesity. When we stand instead of sitting, we ‘stand’ to lose between 20 to 50 more calories per hour depending on our weight and body habitus. I know that that may not sound like a lot but it accumulates. Just two hours of standing over the course of the day can really add up—equating to 4 to 10 pounds over a year (and 4 hours of standing can mean 8 to 20 pounds a year). 
  • Insulin resistance. For unknown reasons, after a period of body inactivity, our cells become resistant to insulin, a hormone that serves as a “key” to allow glucose to enter and serve as energy to fuel its metabolic needs. Over time, insulin resistance can lead to pre-diabetes or, even, Type 2 diabetes. 
  • Cholesterol levels. Research has shown that just 2 hours of sitting decreases our body’s production of an enzyme that converts bad cholesterol to good cholesterol. Increased levels of bad cholesterol contribute to the build-up of fatty plaques inside our artery walls that impede blood flow to our heart and brain. 

These organs perform very important functions—the heart pumps blood to three trillion cells in our body day and night, and the brain is the boss of the body controlling virtually everything we do, even when sleeping. Consequently, they have high oxygen and energy requirements. Even small decreases in flow can cause problems. And, in the event that these plaques rupture, they can cause complete blockage, resulting in a heart attack or stroke. 

  • Heart Disease. Muscles burn less fat and blood flows more sluggishly during a long sit, allowing fatty acids to more easily clog the heart. Prolonged sitting has been linked to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, and people with the most sedentary time are more than twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease than those with the least.
  • Blood clots. Sitting for more than 4 hours, can increase your risk for developing a serious condition called deep vein thrombosis, or blood clots in your legs. Clots have the potential to break off and travel to your lungs. This can result in complete blockage and can be fatal. 
  • Brain health and Foggy Brain. Moving muscles pump fresh blood and oxygen through the brain and trigger the release of all sorts of brain- and mood-enhancing chemicals. When you are sedentary for a long time, everything slows, including brain function.

Research from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that long periods of sedentary behavior are linked to changes in the memory centers of our brain. Over time this can lead to cognitive decline and dementia. 

  • Posture. When we maintain good posture, it decreases aches and stiffness—and standing is superior to sitting for posture. While sitting, we often slouch which causes a number of issues such as putting extra pressure and weight on our neck and shoulders as well as compresses our lungs and intestines. 
  • Disk Damage: People who sit more are at greater risk for herniated lumbar disks. A muscle called the psoas travels through the abdominal cavity and, when it tightens, pulls the upper lumbar spine forward. Upper-body weight rests entirely on the ischial tuberosity (sitting bones) instead of being distributed along the arch of the spine.
  • Soft Bones. Weight-bearing activities such as walking and running stimulate hip and lower-body bones to grow (or stay) thicker, denser and stronger. Scientists partially attribute the recent surge in cases of osteoporosis to lack of activity.
  • Speeds up Aging.  The American Journal of Epidemiology recently published a new study conducted by the University of California, San Diego which reports that sitting down for long periods of time isn’t just bad for your metabolism, it can make you age quicker too. Facts reported that 10 or more hours a day without regular exercise can make a person’s cells age prematurely.

What You Can Do – Make a commitment!

The first step is to commit to moving – take movement breaks. When we interrupt sitting time (experts recommend every 30 minutes or hour, if possible) with short bouts of light- or moderate-intensity activity, it will make a difference!!

  • Taking a break from sitting positions and walking (down a hall, around a room, during commercials when you’re watching TV) all help. Even a snail-like pace of 1 mph can burn twice the calories of sitting, and more vigorous exercise (like a brisk walk, stretches) would be even better. 
  • Treadmill workstations or walk stations require space and may not be a reasonable option for everyone. However, there are a number of commercially available equipment on the market, but it can be as simple as mounting a platform on the handles to place a laptop or papers. 
  • Standing desks offer an alternative to sitting slouched at your desk for hours  
  • Arrange your home and office for movement such as placing items out of arm’s reach to encourage movement
  • Keep a change of comfortable shoes close by so you are more likely to be active 
  • Take a walk during lunchtime. After eating, take a stroll either outdoors, in the halls or up and down a flight of stairs…or, two or three. 
  • Set your alarm on your phone every hour or two to remind yourself to move. In addition to the physical benefits, moving can immediately and considerably improve mood, focus and concentration, and the ability to handle stress at work. Even something simple, like swinging your arms, can make you feel more alert.  
  • Make in-person visits. The advent of technology has made face-to-face communication a rarity. Make an effort to walk to another room or a co-worker’s desk or office to discuss matters.  
  • Schedule walking meetings – or make a commitment to exercise before sitting for that entertainment hour.
  • Pedometers and movement apps or gadgets can provide a sense of accomplishment and motivates you to do more 
  • Utilize a headset so you can make phone calls while standing and moving
  • Reply to emails on your phone while standing. Sending emails on your computer often requires sitting and can be time-consuming. By standing, you will burn more calories and are more likely to keep emails short and succinct. 
  • Utilize ankle weights, resistance bands, or dumbbells (you can even use water bottles). Throw in some quick upper body exercises while you’re on the phone.  

Research shows that prolonged sitting time increases with “empty-nesters and retirement.” There are a number of interventions that can be taken to stay active. Find something you enjoy such as taking daily walks, swimming, dancing, or community or gym group exercise activities. For some, having a community of people who are doing the same thing helps provide a social connection as well as motivation.    

Overall, people should exercise for at least 150 minutes a week and reduce the amount of time spent sitting down, whether it is spent at a computer, watching TV, while traveling in a car, or doing homework. The American Heart Association encourages everyone to: Sit less, move more!” And health experts add that for every consecutive 30 minutes of sitting, move or walk at least 5 minutes. 

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions, and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.

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