While chances are pretty good that you’re sitting down right now (and maybe you have been for a while), you’ve likely heard about the pending perils of a sedentary lifestyle. But what does that mean? How much is too much sitting? How inactive do you have to be before you’re suffering from what’s now known in the scientific community as “sitting disease”? And how much exercise do you need to do to combat it? A better question may be can exercise combat sitting disease?
To find out if you are at risk (or worse, if you are currently suffering) from sitting disease, take a few minutes to honestly answer these three questions:
- How many hours per day are you sitting in your car/on your commute?
- How many hours per day are you sitting at work?
- How many hours do you sit down at home, say relaxing in your favorite chair or couch?
If your answers add up to about 7 ½ hours or more (which is about 55% of the time the typical person spends awake), you’re pretty much normal. But this is a case where being “normal” is not good news because it also means you are very much living a sedentary lifestyle.
What is a Sedentary Lifestyle?
What does it mean to have a sedentary lifestyle? Basically, when you sit for long, uninterrupted periods of time, you lack whole body muscle movements, which “involves very low energy expenditure.” 1 You know, like when you’re doing work at your desk or watching TV.
While it’s pretty obvious that being sedentary burns fewer calories, there’s so much that you’re missing out by not moving. Movement is information, and with every visible move you make, there are important molecular changes made at the cellular level and critical communication across body systems. While it’s quite complex, you can think of it this way: By being sedentary, every aspect of your body is not moving, and you know what they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Simply put, humans evolved to perform and endure habitual physical activity, and along those lines, it is not surprising that its absence (sedentarism) can lead to devastating consequences. For example, a sedentary lifestyle is a good predictor of:
- Weight gain—obese individuals spend about 2 hours more sitting than lean people 2
- Metabolic diseases
- Decreased blood glucose/sugar control
- Increased blood sugar levels
- Decreased insulin sensitivity
- Increased risk of diabetes (by 112%)
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Increased risk of cancer
- Increased risk of early death
- Stiff, tight, and sore shoulder, back, hip, and leg muscles
- Weakened legs and glutes (which can also decrease longevity)
- Increased risk of varicose veins
- Decreased energy levels
- Increased risk of depression
- Reduced cognitive performance
- Increased risk for anxiety
If you look at many computer warriors, they’re sitting a desk for 8+ hours a day, and that’s sandwiched between stationary commute that’s an hour or more each day. And all that sitting is followed by relaxing on the couch for the evening.
Not surprisingly, for most people, “The longer you sit, the fatter you get.” Worse, according to some research, this sedentary lifestyle also means your risk of an early death is 22 to 49% greater 3 from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and more. 1
Wow, that’s awesome. Not! Especially since the environment of our modern world is specifically designed for sitting. It seems almost crazy to think that something that’s so natural could be so harmful. We sit to eat, work, socialize, and travel, and we sit again for entertainment. And we’re sitting more now than ever before. Believe it or not, the average office worker spends up to an alarming 15 hours a day on their butts. 1
Data confirms this, showing that on average, adults spend more than half their waking hours in sedentary behaviors (such as prolonged sitting), followed by light intensive physical activities (such as standing with some slow walking or slight movement) with just 4 to 5% of the day spent in vigorous activity. 4
Exercise and Sitting Disease
You may be thinking, “Hey, I’m not sedentary. I exercise regularly!” First, let me honestly say good for you! That is awesome—I could go on and on and on (really for hours) spouting off the powerful benefits of regular exercise, even just walking, including many that you would probably never expect.
But here’s the deal: A single workout is not enough to make up for the damage done by sitting and being largely inactive the rest of the day. In other words, regular exercise does not combat the harmful effects of an overall sedentary lifestyle.
Yes, you can exercise regularly and still be sedentary. 5 (As one of those computer warriors, this bummed me out too.) However, it is important to note that the risks of a sedentary lifestyle continue to skyrocket if you aren’t exercising either. So, even if you are currently “sedentary,” please don’t give up altogether and stop exercising!
The unfortunate reality, however, is that even a full hour of exercise per day doesn’t appear to make up for the negative effects of hours of sedentary behavior. 6
The next best thing must be a standing desk, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. While some research shows that breaking up and replacing sitting time with standing yields positive outcomes, 7 other research shows that light-intensity walking helps, but standing breaks may not. 8
What appears to help improve metabolic profiles, lower disease risk, and promote health span the most is a combination of regular vigorous exercise and frequent movement breaks (or, “exercise snacks,” if you will) throughout the day. In other words, the movement message is a more holistic one: Sit less, exercise, and move more.
How to Fight Back Against a Sedentary Lifestyle
Sitting disease is a fairly new term, yet it is clear that it greatly affects health overall, and along those lines, researchers are actively and ferociously trying to find solutions to help rescue and recover folks from sedentarism, which is quite simply the opposite of being physically active. Controlled studies are needed, yet some of the most compelling suggestions include:
- Minimizing prolonged sitting/breaking up sitting time with movement breaks lasting least two to five minutes every 30 – 60 minutes.
- Increasing the amount of time spent doing moderate to vigorous actives to at least 30 minutes per day.
- Better balancing out the amount of time spent between light-intensity activities, such as standing with some movement or walking, with sitting. One small study, for example, found that office workers who alternated sitting and standing every 30 minutes reduced spikes in blood sugar by an average of 11.1%. 9 (As a bonus, there are some indications that standing while working may also improve productivity.)
- Increasing non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) by standing, walking, and even fidgeting more, which can expend dozens, if not hundreds, of extra calories a day above basal metabolic rate. 10
- Re-designing work and leisure environments to promote NEAT. (Hello, standing and treadmill desks.)
- Limiting the amount of time sitting and laying down, which involves very little energy expenditure, reducing the number of calories burned.
- Taking short exercise breaks throughout the day (also known as micro-workouts), especially after eating.
- Becoming more active at home by increasing housework, gardening, and yardwork and moving while watching TV by standing, stretching, or gently exercising.
- Standing up and pacing during meetings and phone calls.
- Having standing, or better yet, walking meetings.
Sitting Disease: A Recap
At the end of each day, the goal is to have gotten up and moved throughout the day with a combination of standing, walking, fidgeting, regular exercise, and other forms of low-intensity physical activity (reaching, bending, squatting, picking things up, carrying things, etc.). Not only could being more active help stave off the above-mentioned diseases (and even early death), it’s also a good way to decrease fatigue, reduce low back, upper back, and neck pain, and increase concentration, energy levels, productivity, and mood. 11, 12
And it doesn’t take a lot of extra time. Just by sitting three fewer hours throughout your 24-hour day, the average American could potentially increase lifespan—and more importantly, health span—by a full 2 years. 13 While sitting isn’t necessarily as bad as smoking, it is still highly damaging to your health. Fortunately, taking a stand (or walk) or 10 throughout the day is probably a lot easier than trying to kick an addiction.