There is growing evidence linking sedentary behavior with poor health. Absence of muscle contraction during long, uninterrupted stretches of inactivity can unlock a cascade of negative biochemical reactions. Research shows that the bodies of sedentary people are not as good at breaking down blood sugar and cholesterol, chief culprits in diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. People who spend more time sitting have higher levels of blood sugar and disease-fueling fats called triglycerides, as well as lower levels of heart-protective HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol. Sitting for too long has also been shown to increase the amount of calcium and fatty buildup inside the heart’s arteries – a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes.
A 2003 study of more than 50,000 women followed over six years found that each two-hour increase in daily TV viewing led to a 23 percent jump in obesity. For every two additional hours a day that women spent sitting at work, their obesity risk jumped by 5 percent. Sedentary behavior also increased the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 14 percent.
Another disturbing finding: A newly published review of 47 studies reveals that regardless of exercise, people who spend more time inactive had notably higher risk not only for diabetes and heart disease but also for cancer. They were also more likely to die prematurely! And although more physically active people fared better overall, they were far from immune to the negative effects of sedentary behavior.
Sitting in front of the TV isn’t the only concern. Any extended sitting — such as behind a desk at work or behind the wheel — can be harmful. What’s more, spending a few hours a week at the gym or otherwise engaged in moderate or vigorous activity doesn’t seem to significantly offset the risk.
The solution seems to be less sitting and more moving overall. You might start by simply standing rather than sitting whenever you have the chance or think about ways to walk while you work. For example:
- Stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch.
- If you work at a desk for long periods of time, try a standing desk — or improvise with a high table or counter.
- Walk laps with your colleagues rather than gathering in a conference room for meetings.
- Position your work surface above a treadmill — with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk — so that you can be in motion throughout the day.
Here’s what you can do as well:
Count your steps. Monitoring how many steps you take can be a great motivator to get up and move. You don’t need a fancy activity tracker with a gazillion functions. A simple pedometer will do. Aim for at least 5,000 steps daily, although 10,000 or more is ideal.
Sit less, move often. Here’s the really good news – you don’t have to replace sitting with more vigorous exercise. Research shows that light to moderate activity, such as a leisurely stroll, gardening or housework, boosts the value of your health “capital.”
Don’t give up on exercise. While getting at least 30 minutes of vigorous activity five times a week is still vital for your health, your needn’t get obsessed with it. Light activity counts too so long as you do it often during the day, every day.
The impact of movement — even leisurely movement — can be profound. For starters, you’ll burn more calories. This might lead to weight loss and increased energy. Even better, the muscle activity needed for standing and other movement seems to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body. When you sit, these processes stall — and your health risks increase. When you’re standing or actively moving, you kick the processes back into action.