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How Sitting Too Much Is Making Us Sick – and What to Do about It


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sitting too much, too much sitting
Too much sitting can cause more issues than we realize. iStock.comJacob Wackerhausen

This 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.
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Join the conversation

  1. I’ve incorporated a standing desk into my office about 3 years ago. In that time I’ve developed quite a number of spider veins in my lower legs, as well as general swelling below the knees. After doing a bit of googling, it appears that this is a common issue. Some experts think that a standing or even walking desk is not a good solution. Overall I feel better when I’m standing most of the day, but having a bunch of ugly veins doesn’t excite me much, and it’s also a sign of poor circulation. So now what?

  2. Active sitting is getting trendy now and there a few chairs in the market, but I love my SpinaliS chair. Just after a month I can feel my core muscles are much stronger now and the back pain is gone. Here is their website http://www.spinalis.ca

  3. One way I find that helps me reduce my sitting time is to walk over to a colleague’s office if I need to speak to her and not call her on the internal phone system.

  4. I am retired so I spend a lot of time at home. I watch a lot of tv during the day and I know that is not good for me so I have started making myself get up and walk around the house or jog slowly every time a commercial comes on. I do this every time and for the full length of the commercial. Hopefully this will help me.

  5. 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!

  6. 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!

  7. 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!


  8. 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