Don't Take It Sitting Down
Too much time spent seated is “the new smoking”—
and it menaces the health of millions.
By Lisa James
What are you doing right now, while you’re reading this article? The odds are good that you are seated in a chair or sprawled on a sofa. And that’s a problem.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 80% of all Americans don’t get the weekly 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise recommended, at a minimum, to stay healthy. But what’s worse is that many people are parked in front of desks during the day and in front of screens during the evening, and all that sitting represents a health hazard of its own. In fact, one study linked being inactive 11 or more hours a day with a 12% increase in premature deaths among older women (American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2/14).
Figure you’re covered because you hit the gym after work? Wrong. “Even people who get 30 minutes of activity a day, if they sit for long periods of time they’re still at risk,” says Peter Katzmarzyk, PhD, FACSM, FAHA, associate executive director of Population and Public Health Sciences at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center. “We have probably a dozen studies from around the world linking excessive sitting with increased mortality.”
The simple answer—get up and move around more—can be as challenging as it is obvious. Thanks to labor-saving devices such as escalators, elevators and remote controls, “we’ve engineered physical activity out of our lives completely,” says Katzmarzyk. “We are not designed to be sitting all the time.”
For thousands of years we had no problem getting all the activity we needed. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation 100 years ago,” says Sean Foy, MA, health and fitness training consultant and author of The Burst! Workout (Workman). “Back then, people didn’t have to exercise—they were constantly moving throughout the day.”
The difference is illustrated by two pedometer studies. One 2004 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise gave the devices to members of an Old Order Amish community, whose non-mechanized, farm-based lifestyle reflected that of our pre-Industrial Age ancestors. The average Amish man took 18,000 steps a day and the average woman 14,000. (Despite a diet that didn’t stint on pie, cake and other high-calorie fare, they had very low obesity rates.) By contrast, a 2003 study in the same journal in which more than a thousand Americans received pedometers found that, at an average of 5,117 steps a day, the US ranked far behind Japan (7,168),
Switzerland (9,650) and western Australia (9,695).
In addition, Katzmarzyk says, “We have evidence that when you sit down essentially you’re deactivating all the muscles of your lower limbs, the biggest muscles of the body. The reason this is an issue is that muscles are the biggest sink for glucose in the body. When you deactivate them you have problems with glucose metabolism as well as with cardiovascular fitness.”
Foy puts it simply: “Sitting is the new smoking.”
As in the case of smoking, the dangers posed by excessive sitting—such as increased risks for diabetes and heart disease—tend to develop slowly over time. “All of these things can sneak up on you, making your day-by-day decisions seem less important over the long run,” says Jacque Ratliff, exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise (acefitness.org). “But it is the small, daily changes people make on a consistent basis that lead to real, lasting results.”
Scientists aren’t sure how exactly much time should you spend on your feet each day. The idea is to start anywhere, even if that just means tearing yourself away from your computer a minute or two every hour. “When we move more we feel better, when we feel better we make better choices,” says Foy.
To build more movement into an office setting, Ratliff recommends:
Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
Visiting a restroom on a different floor
Taking a walk around your building every hour
Sitting on a ball instead of a chair at your desk
Standing up at your desk (there are standup desks, some attached to treadmills, as well as desks with adjustable heights)
A number of employers actively encourage fitness. “Multiple studies show that just sitting at your desk is one of the worst things for productivity,” says Foy. “Some companies do a 60-second move—they challenge people to do something for 60 seconds.”
Motion-enhancing ideas outside of the workplace include:
Strolling along the sidelines at your child’s soccer or baseball game
Washing your car with a bucket and hose
Doing vigorous housecleaning
Walking your dog
Cutting your lawn with a push mower
Walking on a treadmill or pedaling a stationary bike while watching TV
Playing with your kids outside
Pushing your baby in a stroller
Caring for a flower or vegetable garden
Parking as far away from stores as possible
Ratliff says these sorts of actions increase NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), the energy burned through physical activity outside of formal exercise. “NEAT helps us to burn more calories throughout the day, which adds up over time,” he explains. “By standing up for an additional two hours per day, instead of sitting those two hours, the average person can lose between six and seven pounds per year.” One American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study even found that fidgeting while standing leads to measurable increases in NEAT.
It helps to remember exactly how much our bodies crave physical activity, including exercise, to stay healthy. After Nancy Burnham’s 2007 retirement she found herself “taking five different prescription medications. I was very much overweight,” the Lilburn, Georgia, resident recalls. “So I walked into a gym and took control of my own health.” Now 67, Burnham found that her five-day-a-week gym habit paid off. “Within a year I had come off all my meds and I had lost 30 pounds. I no longer suffered with chronic back pain,” she says. Her experience motivated her to become an ACE-certified trainer.
Exercising in Increments
What keeps people from following in Burnham’s footsteps?
“The number-one barrier is the perception of the lack of time—and for many people it is a reality,” says Foy. “One woman at a conference came to me afterwards and said, ‘I’m stuck. I’ve tried everything. I have lost the same 60 pounds 20 times. I’ve got kids and two jobs.’”
Taking baby steps towards fitness is feasible. Lee Jordan, 50, of Jacksonville Beach, Florida, started slow out of necessity. “At that time I was just over 450 pounds and connected to oxygen,” he says. “I started with 30 seconds of exercise, walking down a hallway outside of my apartment.” Eventually, “I was able to do three to four minutes at a time, walking at a decent pace. I lost 80 pounds and you couldn’t see the difference.
But I thought, ‘Hey, I can walk.’”
Now down to 187 pounds, Jordan, like Burnham, was inspired to become a second-career fitness trainer. He uses the same approach that worked for him with other people. “Start small, be consistent,” he counsels. “I started with 30 seconds and increased by 30 seconds each day.” Jordan says his clients have seen similar results.
“My first client was a single mother of four trapped in her home; now she lives a free life after losing 200 pounds,” he notes. “The underlying principal is that by starting in a small way, all things are possible.”
It also appears that alternating gentle and vigorous exercise in spurts—a technique known as interval training, long used in high-level athletics—can help overcome the dangers of excessive sitting. “The research shows you don’t have to spend hours and hours exercising for it to be helpful,” says Foy. “The idea is to bring circuit training to the average person who doesn’t want to be an athlete but wants to be healthy and well.”
Many of the exercises Foy recommends in The Burst! Workout, such as wall pushups and squats, require no equipment. “There are so many movements you can do at or near your desk,” he says. “More sudden movement throughout your day will make a dramatic difference.”
One of the best ways to ease into workplace exercise is by forming a walking group. “You may need to go through your HR department, but you could also take an informal poll or send out a company email,” suggests Ratliff. “Find a walking route that is easily accessible and let people know about it. Put it in your calendar and make sure you have a buddy who will help hold you accountable.” Wear good walking shoes and remember to stretch your calves afterward.
To preserve your health, get out of your chair. “I don’t want people to get the message that just standing up is going to keep you healthy all by itself,” says Katzmarzyk. “But just because you’re getting your activity doesn’t mean you can sit on your butt all day.”
How Fitness Trainers Get Fit
Both Nancy Burnham and Lee Jordan developed exercise schedules that suited them.
Burnham was such a neophyte that “somebody had to show me how to operate a treadmill,” she says. But she stuck with it, going to the gym five days a week and starting “with the trainer three times a week. I did simple movements, just getting all joints in better working condition.” Her routine consisted of 15 minutes warmup, 30 minutes intense workout and 15 minutes cool-down; over the course of three days Burnham would do heavy leg work, then concentrate on her back and then a general workout. “That was my three-day routine. I always gave myself a day off to rest,” she says.
In six months, Burnham lost about 10 pounds. “But those 10 pounds really were not as significant to me as feeling how much more energy I had, and the pain became less and less,” she says, noting that it wasn’t always easy. “There were days I would say to myself, ‘This is work. This something I have to be committed to. I have more to do in life than feeling crappy and being in pain every day.’ Every day I went I gave it everything I had.”
Her newfound well-being led Burnham to become a trainer after telling herself, “I have to get older adults to get up and get moving.” Her background allows Burnham to relate well to her peers: “As one of my clients says, ‘She knows the old bones.’”
Lee works out six days a week, first thing in the morning. “I’m a big believer in interval training,” he says. “Run a quarter-mile, do a series of bodyweight exercises, do another quarter-mile, more exercises, repeat another two quarters, then run back a mile slow.” The one piece of equipment Lee does favor is the BOSU, a half-ball on a platform.
As a result of his efforts, Lee “can bike over 20 miles. I do half-marathons. I’ve never been stronger, faster or had more endurance my entire life.”
Lee turned his less-is-more fitness approach into a program he calls 30 Seconds to Victory. “I focus on people who have to lose 100, 200, 300 pounds,” he says, adding that some of his clients couldn’t leave the house or even wear shoes when they began training with him. Lee finds great satisfaction in his work: “This has been a life-changing experience, the difference I get to make in people’s lives.”
Getting Kids Active at School
Like their parents, children are often sedentary for long periods during the school day. This problem is compounded by reduced gym time in many districts; in one poll, 25% of the respondents said their child’s school didn’t adequately emphasize physical education. Increasing activity in the classroom has been linked to upturns in attentiveness, cognitive function and academic achievement (Preventive Medicine 6/11).
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation provides guidance on increasing physical activity before, during and after school in addition to information on other healthy lifestyle topics. Visit them at healthiergeneration.org.
Fire Up Your Feet, a program organized by Safe Routes to School National Partnership, offers resources, an online activity tracker and other materials “aimed at increasing physical activity before, during and after school for students, parents, school staff and teachers,” according to the group’s website. Visit them at fireupyourfeet.org.
Let’s Go!, a Maine childhood obesity prevention program, provides toolkits designed for grade ranges on topics that include both healthy eating and increased activity. While Let’s Go! only registers entities such as such as schools, after school programs, childcare centers and healthcare providers in Maine, their materials are available to anyone through their website, letsgo.org.