There's more and more evidence that sitting is dangerous — here's how to counteract it
- Sitting for too long damages the heart, may harm the brain, and increases risk of death.
- Researchers aren't even sure that exercise is enough to make up for the harms of sitting too much.
- But taking a break can help — try to get up every 30 minutes, or for two hours out of every workday.
The more we learn about the health effects of sitting, the more it seems there's a good reason to get up and go for a walk — or a run.
A sedentary lifestyle isn't just bad for the waistline and the heart, though it certainly can cause problems there. Sitting for too long is also associated with weakening of the brain in areas associated with memory, increased risk for cancer and diabetes, and overall increased risk of an early death.
There's no way to wipe away the effects of spending eight to twelve hours a day sitting down without taking breaks. A number of studies show that even people who get vigorous exercise still suffer negative health effects associated with sitting too long.
But that doesn't mean you can't do anything to improve your long-term prognosis if your day job involves a lot of time at a desk. There are solutions, and some are easy to implement.
Exercise helps. But perhaps most important for counteracting sitting time is remembering to get up and keep moving every so often.
Here's what we know about how sitting affects the body and how to make up for the harm that our sedentary lifestyles can cause.
Scientists have started to understand just why sitting might be so bad for us. It seems to cause gradual "subclinical injury" to the heart over time.
Scientists recently discovered that people who sit more than 10 hours a day (not too hard to do for a person who spends 7 to 9 hours at a desk) have above-normal levels of proteins in their blood called troponins that heart muscle cells release when they're damaged.
If those elevated troponin levels persist chronically in people who sit too long every day, that could explain why sedentary people have a much higher risk of dying from heart disease than people who get up and move every so often throughout the day — and it may help explain why those who live sedentary lifestyles have higher rates of diseases like cancer and diabetes.
Sitting too long could be harmful in ways we're still trying to understand, potentially even causing damage in the brain.
One recent study found that healthy middle-aged and older adults between the ages of 45 and 75 who spent more time sitting had thinner brain regions in areas connected to memory formation, something that can be an early sign of cognitive decline. It's unclear whether this sort of problem could be linked to the signs of potential heart damage that seem potentially responsible for many of the harms of a sedentary lifestyle. But it there's good reason to try to counteract those harms.
Many studies have shown that exercise alone can't compensate for the harms of sitting.
In the study showing brain changes in people who sat a lot, the amount of exercise participants got didn't seem to affect thickness of brain regions associated with memory. Researchers associated with the American College of Sports Medicine have said that sedentary behavior is harmful in and of itself, and that while it's important to meet physical activity guidelines, doing so is not enough to eliminate the harms of sitting for long periods of time.
If you more than double the recommended fitness guidelines, that might be enough to make up for the harms of sitting.
One review of studies published in 2016 in The Lancet found that people who got a minimum of 60 to 75 minutes of at least moderate intensity exercise per day (and who also sat for eight hours per day) weren't more likely to die than people who sat half as much. In other words, enough exercise might do the trick, but that's quite a lot of time working out. Standard guidelines call for 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per day.
People who exercise a lot may sit more when not exercising, which could cause additional harm.
It's easy to feel like you've earned a reward if you just went out and ran five miles after being at your desk all day. But if then spend the rest of the day on the couch, you could still be doing a lot of harm. For that reason, the American Heart Association says it's important to remember that sitting for too long is a problem, even if you do exercise.
Standing all day isn't a perfect solution, either.
Ongoing research into the harms of sitting has many people to try switching to a standing desk (which is often followed by a transition back away from a standing desk).
Standing alone doesn't burn a lot of calories, though that isn't the only goal. It also isn't necessarily comfortable or doable all day. Many people experience limb swelling, muscle fatigue, overall discomfort, and decreased productivity.
If standing all day eliminated the harms of sitting, those pains might be worth it. But at least one study of more than 7,000 people found that all-day standers also experience elevated risk for cardiovascular disease.
The best solution is to get up every so often and move around.
The best thing you can do to counteract the harms of sitting is just to get up and move every 30 minutes or so, according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. You should still try to meet exercise guidelines, but you can keep your desk job — just remember to take breaks.
In 2015, a group of researchers published a consensus statement in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, saying that people should spend two hours out of their seat each day during the workday.
Walk around, take meetings on the move, take calls while you take a stroll. Try a sit-stand desk so you can alternate between sitting and standing. And remember that taking these breaks will make you healthier and more productive in the long run.
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