Are You Sitting Down for This?

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Originally published on January 25, 2014 by Dr. Arigo

SittingMost likely, you’re sitting at your computer (or with a tablet in your lap) as you read this. And unless you’ve been away from the news lately, you know that sitting is bad for your health. But what exactly does that mean? How did we get to be a society of sitters? How does sitting lead to poor health? And what can (or should) we do about it?

As with eating, our society has experienced a radical shift in our built and personal environments over the past 60 years. Early humans were running around on the savannah, escaping from predators or chasing food sources. They got a lot of exercise, and there was no telling when it might be time for fighting or fleeing again. So our bodies – and more importantly, our brains – evolved to preserve energy for unexpected times of need. That means that we’re set up to favor energy-saving activities when there is no need to expend energy.

Fast forward to the more recent past (1100-1800 AD). Most people worked in labor-intensive occupations such as farming. Again, lots of exercise, so sitting after a 14-hour day of harvesting allowed people to recharge. But think about today’s environment. How often are we running from predators or chasing food? How many of us work in careers that are truly labor-intensive? (Note that we all tend to overestimate how active we are. Standing as part of a job isn’t the same as labor-intensive.) And technological advances allow us to avoid even getting up to change the channel on the television. Problem: we’re built to conserve energy, and conserving energy feels good, so expending extra energy has to be deliberate. In other words, it takes effort.

This helpful graphic from the Washington Post provides a good summary of the sitting-health evidence to date. Extended periods of time spent in sedentary activities (i.e., anything done sitting or lying down, such as working at a computer or watching television) restricts blood flow to the heart and brain, and trains bones and muscles to adopt “natural” states that aren’t actually natural. For example, most of us have gotten into the habit of slouching as we sit, giving our abdomen muscles no tension or movement and repeatedly curving our spines. And with certain sedentary activities, we’re more likely to eat, and eat mindlessly. As a result, high amounts of sedentary time are associated with neck and spine problems, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and early mortality.

Okay, so sitting is bad. Does that mean that we all have to have treadmill desks or become marathon runners (many of whom run twice per day) in order to avoid chronic problems? Should we force ourselves to stand at home all evening after a long and stressful day at work? Fortunately not, as small changes can go a long way: walking may be slightly less helpful than jogging or biking, but benefits are comparable. And there is good evidence to suggest that the biggest benefits of increasing activity come to those who start with very little.

First, one key problem is that we sit for very long periods of time without a break. Even taking a few extra two-minute walks around the office twice a day can be helpful for getting blood flowing. (NOTE: This needs to be an increase from what you normally do.) Second, many of our “relaxation” activities are sedentary, rather than active. Television show? Don’t fast forward through commercials – take the opportunity to stand, stretch, and pace the living room for a few minutes. Even better – use that treadmill or exercise bike for its original purpose as you watch, rather than using it as a coat rack. Meeting friends? Park a few blocks away and walk to/from a restaurant, or walk around the mall/street as you drink your coffee. Even better – meet for a walk instead of dinner or beverages.

Exercise that gets your heart rate up and makes you sweat will help to protect us from chronic, debilitating illness. But if you’re not ready to adopt an exercise routine, you can give yourself a gift in the same vein by setting smaller goals: “I will walk around the office for three minutes at 10:00 and 2:00 today, in addition to the other times that I get up (for lunch, etc.).” Keep it manageable and specific, and set alarms or calendar alerts to remind you. My reminders to myself say “Still sitting? Time to do yourself a favor and MOVE.”

What do you do to stay active and healthy? We all could use some additional options – share in the comments.

Read more about environmental effects on exercise, and get some additional tips, here.

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