How Sitting Too Much Is Making Us Sick and Fat – And What to Do About It

sittingThis article was first featured at The Huffington Post. Click here to see the original article.

There’s no question that regular exercise is essential to health. For the vast majority of our evolutionary history, we’ve had to exert ourselves — often quite strenuously — to get food, find shelter and simply survive. We naturally spent a lot of time outdoors in the sun, walking, hunting, gathering, and performing various other physically-oriented tasks. We had no concept of this as “exercise” or “working out.” It was just life.

Things are different today. Most people in modern societies spend the majority of their time indoors, sitting on their butts (like you’re probably doing right now). The typical U.S. adult is sedentary for 60 percent of their waking hours and sits for an average of six hours per day (and often much more, in the case of those who work primarily on computers). (12) In fact, being sedentary is now the norm and exercise is primarily seen as an intervention – something we do to guard against the negative impacts of a sedentary lifestyle.

An Epidemic of Sedentary Behavior: The Perils of Too Much Sitting

This increase in sedentary time and decrease in physical activity has profoundly impacted our health. Too much sitting is associated with numerous problems, ranging from weight gain, to osteoporosis, to cardiovascular disease. For example, research has shown that:

  • Sitting decreases the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which helps burn fat. (3)
  • Too much sedentary time decreases bone mineral density without increasing bone formation, which raises the risk of fracture. (4)
  • Excess sitting increases blood pressure and decreases the diameter of arteries, both of which make heart disease more likely. (5)

Even worse, too much sitting could shorten your life. Studies in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Asia have all found an association between increased sedentary time and the risk of early death. (6789) These associations were independent of traditional risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, waist circumference and diet.

The “Active Couch Potato”: Why Exercise Isn’t Enough

I’m sure this isn’t news to you; most people are aware that physical activity is essential to good health. But what you may not know is that too much sitting time is harmful even if you’re getting enough exercise.

This means you could be meeting the recommended guidelines for exercise (i.e., 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity, five days a week), but still be at higher risk of disease if you sit for long periods each day. In fact, a large study involving over 100,000 U.S. adults found that those who sat for more than six hours a day had up to a 40 percent greater risk of death over the next 15 years than those who sat for less than three hours a day. (10) Most importantly, this effect occurred regardless of whether the participants exercised. Some research even suggests that people who exercise intensely (like marathon runners) are more likely to be sedentary when they’re not exercising. (11) They may assume that their training regimen protects them from the harmful effects of too much sitting when they’re not exercising. It doesn’t.

In industrialized societies, this “active couch potato” phenomenon has become the norm rather than the exception. If you work in an office, commute by car and watch a few hours of TV each night, it’s not hard to see how you could spend the vast majority of your waking life (up to 15 hours!) sitting on your butt. This is far outside of evolutionary norms for humans, and has serious consequences for our health.

Move Like Your Ancestors: Become an “Organic Mover”

We’ve established that 1) too much sitting is harmful, and 2) exercise alone isn’t enough to reverse the harmful effects of too much sitting. It follows, then, that for optimal health we should reduce sitting timeand increase “non-exercise” physical activity. The best way to achieve this is by embracing what I call “organic movement”: incorporating physical activity throughout your day in addition to performing distinct periods of exercise. This mimics the ancestral pattern of activity that humans are biologically and genetically adapted to.

In general, I recommend standing or walking for at least 50 percent of the day, and not sitting for more than two hours at a time without taking a short standing or walking break. If you work in an occupation that involves sitting for long periods, here are a few ways to accomplish this:

  • Work at a standing desk. Many employers permit this now, and more will follow once they understand the potential benefits in terms of reduced absenteeism, lower health care costs and higher productivity in their employees.
  • Work at a treadmill desk. If you want to take a standing desk to the next level, and you work at home or have a progressive employer, try a treadmill desk. (I use one of these in my home office, and it has changed my life. Read this post for more info.)
  • Walk or bicycle to work. This isn’t always possible, but with a little creativity it often is. If you live too far away to walk or ride exclusively, consider driving part of the way and walking or cycling for the remainder.
  • Take a standing or walking break. Stand up for at least two minutes every hour. If possible, take a brief walk or do some light stretching. Even short breaks like this can make a big difference. If you have trouble remembering to do this, try setting an alarm on your phone each time you sit down again, or use an app like Time Out (Mac) or Workrave (Windows).
  • Stand up at meetings. If you’re worried about what your colleagues might think, just tell them you have a bad back!
  • Sit more actively. Sitting inactively in a chair isn’t the only way to sit. Consider sitting on a yoga ball for periods of time instead of a chair, or place an “active sitting disc” on your chair and sit on that. Both of these options will force you to make small postural adjustments while you’re sitting, which mitigates some of the harmful effects of being sedentary. These micro-movements can add up to a significant expenditure of calories throughout the day.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you taken steps to reduce your sitting time? If so, what benefits have you noticed? If you’re still sitting for long periods each day, how might you take steps to increase your activity?

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. says

    I became aware of just how sedentary I was when I got a Fitbit and dug into the data it gave me. At around the same time I was working with a client on their social wellness challenge and had been assigned to a team and given a pedometer (separate from my Fitbit). It became quite obvious that pedometers and trackers are terrific at tracking steps, but they’re not always the solution for getting more of them. For that I needed a little alarm or trigger, some type of nudge. So I created a tool that nudges me to get up and randomizes the activities I do when I get up, based on activities I’ve pre-selected.

    Now that I get up at least 8 – 10 times per day with these nudges, along with my regular reasons for getting up (water, etc), I feel more energized, have less back and body strain, and am also taxed with less guilt! With the variety of exercises I do, from push-ups to squats to stretches, I also feel stronger.

    It’s fun to learn what everyone else is doing, and how.

    Fran

      • Eryn says

        Try the Garmin Vivofit. It reminds you to get up and walk for two minutes every hour in addition to tracking your total steps, miles, calories burned, and monitors your sleep. One up on the fitbit in my mind! It’s totally changed how I go about my day. Now I walk or run for 45 minutes at lunch to meet my daily goal, I walk for two minutes every hour, and often find myself going for another walk in the evening. If you find you need a reminder, the Vivofit could be very helpful to you!

    • says

      For my first ‘stand up desk’ I started with a cardboard box on my desk for the keyboard and a shelf on the wall for the monitor. Then last year I converted my father’s old drafting table to my stand-up desk – one side is set at ‘standing’ height and the other is at the correct height for a tall stool with a back, the monitor is on a swing arm so I can use it on either side of the desk!

      Here’s a video that details most of the same points you bring up in your article
      Uninterrupted Bouts Of Sitting Are Killing Us Softly
      http://www.standbyyourdesk.com/info/tv-news

      • Dariusz says

        Here’s a video that details most of the same points you bring up in your article
        Uninterrupted Bouts Of Sitting Are Killing Us Softly
        http://www.standbyyourdesk.com/info/tv-news
        wow from desk company commercial like gluten free companies. Only in U.S there is so much problems Italian is the most sitting nation and yet the most healhiest diet and exercise.

  2. says

    You’ve inspired me! I recently got my new treadmill desk installed and now there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t get my 10,000 steps in (counted on fitbit), and often more – close to twice that! Thanks for the great example!

  3. Mo says

    Recently, I’ve become disabled, unable to perform the technological procedures of my profession. I’ve been spending a lot of time in front of the computer and reading. Because of this sedentary lifestyle, I’ve put on a few pounds and became sluggish. Now I am working out daily. Making sure I am getting adequate exercise. I feel much better!! Some things you just take for granted until you loose them.

  4. Heather says

    I’m sitting on an Active Sitting Disc right now. And under my feet I have a balance board.

    I work at a huge site. I once asked about a standing desk and I was told that I had to have some kind of medical problem. Really?

  5. says

    This article is filled with helpful suggestions and astonishing facts about our nation’s battle with the sedentary life style. As a working professional who sits at a desk at least 30-40 hours a week, I am concerned about my health and the health of my colleagues as well. Working at a desk is no excuse for all of the excessive “sitting” that is taking place. There must be ways to stay productive and active during the work day.

    I love the recommendation for sitting on a yoga ball at work. I became fond of this during my pregnancy and I would love to apply it in the office. If I can get my boss on board, perhaps the entire office can be bouncing around with me.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • says

      Started sitting on an exercise ball a year ago. Nothing has been better for my back – ever. Better than even the Herman Miller $1000 aero chair it replaced. And they cost less than $30!

  6. Stefan says

    Working at a standing desk – if you have space in your office the easiest way is to purchase one of those high bistro tables. Place you phone(s) on the table and take/make calls standing. If you need to read a file do it on the table. Grab your laptop and do 30mins email standing. Have a cup of coffee with a colleague and discuss a project… Many opportunities to work standing!

  7. says

    Recently I read “sitting is the new smoking.” It sounds funny, but I actually think it might be true (well maybe a bit exaggerated, but still.)
    Sitting all day, at work, in the car, at home… It is so bad for you, and you can really FEEL it when you make the change to standing.
    I did. About 5 months ago I started using an adjustable height desk from NextDesk and haven’t looked back since. I feel more energetic, my posture has improved, I’ve lost weight… It’s really changed the way I feel at work and after.
    Anyway, I recommend them to anyone!
    Cheers,
    Mark

  8. says

    Personaly i have been suffering from upper back pain due the fact that i work alot in sitting posture. Just like you pointed out in your article, exercising isn’t enough. Taking your bike and bicycle to work is a great approach which has helped me to relief my upper back pain since i have became more active. Every hour at work i take a break and walk a bit, stand or do some stretching exercises which makes me feel great afterwards. Thanks alot for sharing!

  9. Ben says

    Overall I am disappointed with the conclusions assumed around this. These studies, like so many others, show correlations, not causation. The data show that people that are more sedentary also have poorer health. But if you sit a ton and don’t show any signs of any of the negative consequences listed, is it still killing you?

    Or is the sedentary lifestyle the result of poorer health? I know they “controlled” for these factors. But I have heard that claim in studies before. As usual, it seems the data lump everyone into a bucket and ignore many variables when drawing their conclusions. The real study would track health parameters over time for the people at different sedentary levels. Instead, they count the number of deaths/adverse events in each group. That does not demonstrate causation.

    I know my energy level drives how sedentary I am. And my energy level is likely driven by several health factors that are likely more intimately tied to my mortality.

  10. Ben says

    Also, other articles you have written, Chris, have shown that exercise doesn’t improve health really. Activity improves health. Since most people exercise instead of activity, the fact that the study authors “controlled” for exercise demonstrates an error. Significant exercise would likely push someone towards the higher mortality group moreso than sitting IMO. Sitting is far less inflammatory.

  11. says

    Wonderful article, Chris! I used to have a standing desk, but not any longer. When I’m working from home I try to either stand or squat to use my laptop. I also try to take a standing break once every 30-60 minutes, and try to also do things like 10-20 squats or lunges, just to get my blood moving. I need to be better about being consistent with my activity breaks! It’s really hard in my office to do that….no way can I do exercise from my desk, but I can try to at least stand up and walk around more often than I do. Definitely going to share this article! Maybe I’ll share it with my boss, too (an interventional neurologist…)

  12. Kristie says

    I requested a keyboard tray for my desk at work because I’m short enough that it bothered my arms and shoulders to hold them up to type on top of my desk. Now my keyboard sits just below my desk still with plenty of room for my legs when I’m sitting, but my keyboard tray came with the added bonus of being adjustable to different heights. I can actually pull it out and adjust it high enough to alternate between standing and sitting throughout the day depending on what I’m working on or how I feel. I love it and there are tons of jealous people in my department. :)

  13. says

    I have been standing since April 2013. It is one of hte best things I have done for my health, my posture is better and my energy level is excellent.
    I am looking into a treadmill desk as my next step!

  14. Sean Griffin says

    Chris – I like your recommendation to sit on yoga balls or a disc, but believe it’s important to mention that that form of sitting can “sap capacity” as Dr. Stu McGill puts it. For a lot of people that use your site and also exercise quite intensively (i.e. crossfitters), I think appropriate posture no matter if your sitting, standing or walking is the key. While sitting on a yoga ball will usually result in better posture, it also uses more capacity and increases compression of the discs, both of which can increase your risk of injury if you go from sitting for 8-10 hours straight to an hour of high intensity exercise.

    I think you did a great job of covering numerous methods to reduce sitting. I think it’s this balanced approach that is most effective. I also love mini mobility breaks!

  15. Cheryl says

    I work from home at my computer, so bought a stand to put on my desk to make it a standing desk. After one week of using it, I noticed significant swelling in my ankles and feet; something I’d never had before. It was a bit alarming. I’ve head this can lead to varicose veins and other serious problems.

    I’m back to sitting; but would like to try the standing desk again. Chris, what do you recommend to avoid the edema? Btw, I’m not at all overweight (5’8″, 127 lbs), so that’s not part of the problem. A friend of mine suggested getting compression socks, but those would be very uncomfortable during the summer months. Any suggestions would be helpful, as I’m not finding any good solutions in my research.

  16. Dariusz says

    Chris in past i belive in your article but few of them are simple quackery like this. First “Too much sedentary time decreases bone mineral density without increasing bone formation, which raises the risk of fracture” you reference research where people where bound to bed. They dont any exercise.
    Second study show that sex count women are more prone to get diabetes and iflamation from sitting that men . “Move Like Your Ancestors” our ancesstors also dont buy supplement like you have in your strore ;) also whey they hunt they must sits even few ours to cach animals, also if you dont notice we change our diet for our activity.
    “However, those that exercise at least 4 hours per week are as healthy as those that sit fewer than 4 hours per day” http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1108794 its work to me i jogging 1 to 1.5 hour per day 7 days in week mean 8 h per week and i have lower blood sugar , blood pressure and cholesterol than when i standing most day (sitting less than 2.5 hours).
    “exercise alone isn’t enough to reverse the harmful effects of too much sitting” no? look at person after infarction when they start exercise but still most day are sitting there health improved i know this persons. You only wrote this article because you are paleo diet man and you know for person who are sedentary this diet is wrong! In conclusion exercise are needed to have good health but if you exercise min 1 hour they mean exercise not walking! and customize diet to your activity you can overcome sedentary health effect. I and my frends are good example we work 2-3 hours a day exercise like say and rest day sit and play games or other activity on computer and after medical screenings docs say we are healthier than few years ago when we are child who go home only eat and sleep.

    • says

      No offense, but if you are going to argue points in the article, please use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I tried to read your post but after a few sentences it was just too exhausting. It left me questioning your level of expertise and I’m still not quite sure what you were trying to say.

      Furthermore, if you don’t feel a Paleo-styled diet is “right”, especially for sedentary people (which I disagree with completely), why are you reading and responding to a Paleo blog??

      To me, the main aspect of a Paleo diet is not eating grains. Anyone, whether physically active or not, would benefit from not eating grains. Most people are sensitive to grains and they don’t even know it. And, modern grains are not the grains of years past. Unfortunately, most grains are GMO and contain harmful pesticides. Our bodies were not designed to process this junk. So yeah, even sedentary people can benefit from a Paleo diet.

      Check out a book called “Brain Grain” by Dr. Perlmutter. He’s a neurologist and provides some great information on the cons of grains, especially gluten, and the pros of meat and fat. It will give you a lot of insight into how food affects your health, and your brain overall. And some of the research and references will reinforce a Paleo-style eating plan.

      • Darius says

        o offense, but if you are going to argue points in the article, please use proper grammar -sorry for that i just start learning english with proper gramar. “Check out a book called “Brain Grain” by Dr. Perlmutter. He’s a neurologist and provides some great information ” So what Wheat Belly was wrote by cardiologist who claim you can lose belly on this diet and what ? he get fat on his own diet. Also if Perlmutter have right then Japan and Itally who eat grain and carbohydrates are more healthiest nations? and some reference http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0733521013000969#bbib15

        http://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2014nl/jan/smoke.htm last is interesting someone please perlmutter to comment this article in Q&A he dont respond
        “To me, the main aspect of a Paleo diet is not eating grains. Anyone, whether physically active or not, would benefit from not eating grains” you are wrong research show that our ancestor many days starve that why they eat high fat and for this reason we gain weight. I cant fing know reference but i see research where they give healthy people WGA and look about they plasma lvl they found nothing
        “why are you reading and responding to a Paleo blog?” i dont found this when searching something in google also one person say smart about paleo diet http://www.examiner.com/article/fitness-expert-says-trendy-paleo-diet-has-jumped-the-shark

  17. says

    I am Rey active . I clean houses spin take weigh classes and walk some days 10 miles. I still have osteoporosis and stomach ailments. I also find at night if I just plop and stay there I will gain weight. So get up do push-ups or runinplace

  18. says

    Hi Chris…..I am really pleased to see this one has caught your eye too. I really loved the “smoking” quote when I first saw it a few months ago. So much so it inspired me to write an article about my son and his near fatal “sitting problem” on my fitness blog which I hope your readers can get some inspiration from as well.

    You can find the article here: Sitting, Exercise and Premature Death – How To Make Sure You Are Not One of the Statistics: http://www.steamtrainfitness.com/lifestyle-tips-for-healthy-living/sitting-exercise-premature-death-make-sure-one-statistics/

    Cheers – John F

  19. says

    Hello,
    I just wanted to mention that I loved the idea of you putting together your own desk Chris. Some of the pre-assembled packages are rather expensive, at least to me as a single mom!

    I’m a graphic and web designer and work from my home office, so sitting is something I do most of the day. I’ve started noticing swelling in my ankles and some circulation problems, and I’ve started looking for alternatives to my work day. Turns out, I get an email linking me to your blog post about the treadmill desk you created. Great timing!

    I already have my space set up and how I like it, and my desk is a very heavy metal desk that I bought for only $50 when Borders bookstore was closing. It has a 48″ wide desk top with two file cabinet style drawers on the right side under the desk top. It also has a desktop shelf attachment that gives me space to store books, paper reams, etc.

    I really couldn’t see buying another desk and wanted to be able to work with what I already had set up. The TreadDesk treadmill was a great find on your part and the price is really unbeatable. What I love about it it that it doesn’t have the standard arms and panel, which makes it perfect to position under my desk just left of the drawers. However, my dilemma was finding something that allowed me a higher platform to place my monitor, keyboard and mouse…

    And whalaa! I found my solution at http://www.varidesk.com. Their newest Pro Plus model is only $350 and will sit right on top of my current desk. It can be repositioned for sitting or standing – all without having to move my monitor, keyboard, or mouse!

    Looks like this set-up will cost me a little over $1,200 total, but I feel my health is worth it, and I don’t have to make much change to my current office space.

    Thanks Chris for providing a solution to my problem and sharing your experience – it has motivated me to kill two birds with one stone – work and exercise!

    -Toni

  20. Cat says

    My coworkers and I all agreed to plank for 60 seconds, every hour. We often miss a few but most days get a good 3 or 4 planks in. Now, we’ve started doing sit-ups, wall-sits, and other variations throughout the day. We’re finding apps that will help remind us all to get up every hour instead of just when the whim strikes us.

    Good stuff!

  21. Abz says

    I do all this. Good to know I am on the right track. Thanks for putting this together. Posted this on FB and shared this with my HR manager and m direcy boss, who just happen to call in sick because his back gave out. Doah!

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