With the continual evolution of technology – way back to the Industrial Revolution – Americans have become increasingly sedentary. The automation of everything from remote controls to cell phones to leaf blowers means that we don’t have to move too much anymore. Researchers have warned that this lack of activity is causing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, low back pain, depression and more – and ultimately can be fatal.
The human body was designed for physical activity, and despite all the information about the need for and the many benefits of consistent exercise, we still aren’t getting the message. Although moderate exercise of 30 minutes per day definitely helps, it is not enough to counteract the lack of movement the other 23.5 hours. So it’s possible to meet professional physical activity guidelines and still be very sedentary.
Read on for more information on this modern epidemic, sometimes called “sitting disease,” and get recommendations on how to combat it.
Comprehensive research on this condition that affects all of us may differ slightly in some details, but the bottom line is universal – if you sit you much, you can die earlier. That should be enough to get you moving more.
One 2012 study showed that people spent an average of 64 hours per week sitting –more than nine hours per day. Another estimate, based on data pooled from 41 international studies, noted that more than one-half of a person’s day is spent sitting, watching TV or working at a computer. That means about 12 hours or more of an average 16-hour waking day is spent on your bum.
Since 1950, the prevalence of sitting jobs has increased 83 percent, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 85 percent of America’s workforce sits at a desk all day. The CDC also indicates that one hour of sitting is as unhealthy as smoking two cigarettes, and that prolonged sitting is the No. 1 contributor to chronic diseases.
According to James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., a director at the Mayo Clinic, and, coincidentally, the inventor of the treadmill desk, “sitting is the new smoking.”
One study compared adults who spent less than two hours per day in front of a screen with those who had more than four hours, and the results were significant. Those with more screen time had a nearly 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause, and a 125 percent increase of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain or a heart attack.
More research shows that the longer you sit, the higher your risk of cancer – specifically breast, colon, lung and prostate.
And the risks are cumulative. The U.S. National Institutes of Health found that people who sat for more than 13 hours per day had a 200 percent greater risk of death compared to those who sat for less than 11 hours daily.
Think you’re safe because you exercise? Think again. More research is showing that even regular workouts typically aren’t enough to offset the significant time seated the rest of the day. Plus, some studies indicate that people are approximately 30 percent less active overall on days when they hit the gym versus those that they don’t. It may be compensatory inactivity, whereby the body is tired from the workout, or more likely, the mind justifies the rest based on the “credit” one self-attributes from regular exercise.
So why is sitting so bad, anyway? Scientists admit that it’s not entirely clear, but some physiological effects are evident. For one, your muscles are immobile and your circulation slows, which slows down everything, such as delivery of oxygen and feel-good hormones. Your metabolism limps along, so you use less blood sugar and burn less fat, which increases the risk of weight gain, diabetes and heart disease. And sadly, being sedentary tends to reduce energy even more – leading to perceived fatigue that discourages getting active.
The good news is that more movement indeed helps, and can have dramatic effects. The CDC reports that simply getting up and moving for five minutes of every hour can result in as much as a 50 percent reduction of risk of hypertension, 30 percent decrease in the risk of Type 2 diabetes, 27 percent decline in the risk of stroke, 25 percent drop in the risk of colon cancer and 21 percent reduction in the risk of breast cancer.
Even frequent posture changes and standing or movement breaks as short as one minute help improve health by increasing blood flow, stimulating metabolism and boosting energy. What’s critical is to incorporate more movement throughout each day – especially if you drive to work, sit at a desk for eight hours and then hit the couch all night.
Implement some of these simple recommendations to add valuable activity to your day, and commit to making them habits:
- Stand when possible: Pace when you are on the phone or stand when texting. Stand at your children’s athletic events or performances. Hold standing or walking meetings at work, or use a high table or counter in your office to work on your feet.
- Walk more: At work, use the stairs and go to see colleagues rather than emailing or calling them. Park in a far space and walk to your office or the store. Walk at lunch if possible. At home, walk the dog or push your baby in a stroller, stroll through the neighborhood after dinner or walk to do errands.
- Try technology: Invest in an activity tracker or a pedometer, and set goals for daily steps. Several health organizations recommend 10,000 steps per day, but compete with coworkers or friends to motivate you to do even more. Try a treadmill desk, set a timer for activity breaks or use an app that reminds you to move throughout the day.
- Schedule movement breaks: Using an alarm on your phone or computer, get up and walk around for a few minutes several times daily.
- Stretch: Get out of your chair a few times a day and stretch your legs and upper body. Take some deep breaths to increase oxygen to the brain. Perfect your posture by drawing the shoulder blades back, opening the chest, pulling the navel to the spine and keeping a natural lumbar curve.
- Drink more water: Not only will this combat dehydration (which can cause headaches and fatigue), but also, you’ll have to visit the restroom more often.
- Reorganize your office: Move your printer, phone, wastebasket and files to force you to get out of your chair often to complete your work.
- Swap your chair: Use a stability ball to encourage movement while seated, or grab a stool that you can perch on, which is about halfway between sitting and standing.
- Change your commute: Give up your seat on the bus or train and stand, get off the bus or train or taxi a few stops early and walk to your office or ride your bike to work. Wander through the airport when awaiting your flight.
- Capitalize on commercials: When watching TV, get up and do calisthenics, stretching, yoga, Pilates or foam rolling during commercial breaks – or better, throughout the program.
Fuel your life by moving more during the day with the tips above!