Could sitting too much reduce our lifespan? When we are young, we are taught to sit quietly. Later, we learn that sitting in a state of quiet reflection is highly desirable for our mental and physical health. Sitting, itself is inherently good but is too much sitting undesirable? Is how we sit important?
Sitting has been the subject of many scientific investigations on thousands of people of many different nationalities and the overall results are similar. Not surprisingly the studies are somewhat general in nature because the number of possible combinations of behavior are huge. Nevertheless, there are consistent findings that sedentary behavior is bad for us.
Sitting in our graves?
Many research teams have examined whether there is a relationship between the hours spent sitting (i.e. sitting too much) and cardiovascular ‘disease events’ and/or death or deaths from all causes? The researchers also consider whether the time spent sitting can be compensated by moderate or high intensity exercise. Overall, the studies have remarkably consistent findings, so I’ve chosen the results from just one to explain the findings.
In a recently published large study from Australia that involved more than 120,000 participants, the results were adjusted for people’s ages, their marital status and whether they lived in the city or a rural location. Their health status, smoking status and dietary intake of fruit and vegetables were also accounted for. People who died in the first 24 months of follow-up were excluded from the analysis because their health in the last stage of their lives might have precluded exercise. The remaining participants were then classified into four groups.
Group 1 were described as ‘Highly active’ and they exercised for 420 minutes (7 hours) or more each week. Group 2, described as ‘Active upper’ exercised 300-419 minutes (5 to less than 7 hours) each week, Group 3 described as ‘Active lower’ exercised at 150-299 minutes (2.5 to less than 5 hours) per week, Group 4, the ‘insufficiently active group’ exercised between one and 149 minutes (1 to less than 2.5 hours) per week and Group 5 had no physical activity. Groups 4 to 5 were sitting too much and Group 3 was borderline!
Not too surprisingly, those who were classified as Group 5 had about 1.6 times the risk of dying (from any cause) in the next 7 years, and their risk of cardiovascular disease was doubled. Interestingly, people in Group 2 (Active upper) had similar outcomes to those in the highly active Group 1, which were considerably better than those in Groups 3 and 4. Lack of physical activity is clearly the greatest risk factor for poor health and/or death but sitting for 8 hours a day or more is risky, unless this is balanced by at least 300 minutes (5 hours) or more activity each week.
Unfortunately, today, sedentary behavior occurs during work and school hours, as well as travelling to and from work and at home, watching TV or playing electronic or board games. So, what effective interventions can be made that don’t interfere with work productivity and/or the enjoyment of leisure time? How can we stop sitting too much?
To-date in the workplace, apart from ‘standing meetings, ‘sit-stand desks’, or desks that have some types of treadmill or pedal machine inserted underneath, the solutions to the long hours of sitting are limited. I personally find that reversing the drive towards office efficiency helps me. I used to work in offices at home and at work where everything was within reach, and I still tend to ‘be efficient’. But although it wastes a little time, deliberately placing everything out of reach helps your body. Having to get up and walk to the printer or to your notebook or your glass of water each time you need it, will ensure that you are getting up quite frequently!
Fortunately, my mail is delivered to a post box at the top of a hilly driveway that reaches five stories. I always make sure that I walk up this hill at least once each day. This ‘purposeful exercise’ is similar to always taking the stairs rather than the elevator wherever this is possible. So, although having a regular program of exercise of some type is important, keeping as active as possible while undertaking ‘sitting tasks’ is also a good way of reducing continuous sitting.
Activity is very important but posture, that is the way you stand and use your body is also critical to both mental and physical health.
Posture and mental health
We can all recognise a pose that indicates victory and one that indicates defeat. Yoga classes even teach students ‘power poses’ and if you have ever adopted one of these poses, you will recognise how much better you feel. Researchers are now finding that upright posture has not only positive effects on breathing and energy, but it also affects mood and mental efficiency. Preliminary findings indicate that keeping an upright posture (while sitting as well as standing) can improve symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety. So, if we sit up straight, we probably won’t have to sit for as long because we will be just that much more efficient!
Posture and physical health
If you are like me, you will have spent many hours with physiotherapists or chiropracters treating a neck, hip, back or shoulder problems. I’ve even had two hip replacements and recently spent over a year nursing a shoulder injury that isn’t quite better! But many of my injuries, especially the shoulder, could have been prevented by better posture.
We all need to understand how to exercise and strengthen all the muscles we use in walking and sitting as well as while exercising and we need to have a routine of performing these strengthening exercises several times each week. We also need to focus time on balance and the older we get, the more important it is to undertake stretching exercises and regularly practice our balance!
A ‘final’ word on sitting
A recent study published by the American Cancer Society showed that 14 causes of death were more likely in people who sat the longest. These include cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, suicide, COPD (such as emphysema), pneumonitis due to inhaling something, liver disease, peptic ulcer and other digestive disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, nervous disorders, and musculoskeletal disorders, which you will agree are most of the causes of death! So, the major health message here is to move as often as you can whilst still performing your work and behaving within society’s limitations.
Although being efficient is generally good, building in some inefficiencies that require you to move more, could be a life saver!