Meet the weekend exercise warriors: Monday through Friday, they go to work and spend long hours sitting at a desk. On weeknights, by the time they get home, they’re too tired for anything other than watching TV on the couch. But Saturdays and Sundays, these folks lace up their running shoes and do laps at the local park, play tennis, bike, hit the gym, or go hiking with friends.
Did I just describe you? If so, I applaud you for making time on your days off for physical activity. Unfortunately, such sporadic bursts aren’t enough to counteract the harmful effects prolonged sitting has on the mind and body. To get the benefits of exercise, you need to move much more often—every single day—by sitting much less. In other words, you have to swap your sedentary lifestyle for an active one.
Don’t panic: That doesn’t mean you have to find an extra hour in your busy day to get to the gym or a fitness class. By doing simple things like taking standing and walking breaks during work, plus occasionally engaging in brief but higher-intensity exercise, you’ll be moving like our active hunter–gatherer ancestors did and be well on your way to enjoying better health.
Think about your typical work day. Do you sit at a desk for eight hours, commute home in a car, and sit in front of the TV until bed? If so, you’re not getting the full benefits of exercise—even if your weekends are full of workouts. Find out why. #healthylifestyle #chriskresser
Six Reasons Why Sitting Is So Bad for Your Health
A sedentary lifestyle, comprising prolonged sitting and minimal physical activity, has a negative effect on nearly every aspect of human health. As a result, it increases your risk of developing serious chronic diseases and even early death. Although we’re not 100 percent sure why sitting raises these risks, thanks to the emergent field of sedentary physiology, we have some pretty good ideas. (1) For example, we know that sitting is associated with decreased calorie expenditure and poorer metabolic functioning, including reduced insulin sensitivity. (2) As I’ve discussed before, sitting too much can lead to weight gain over time—even if you’re exercising when you step away from your desk.
Reason #1: It’s Hazardous to Your Heart
Studies have linked being sedentary with cardiovascular disease (CVD), including coronary heart disease, stroke, heart attack, and CVD-related death. (3, 4) It appears that sitting decreases activity of the enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which leads to higher levels of triglycerides (a type of fat that moves through your bloodstream and is sometimes an indicator for CVD) and lower levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol). (5) Sitting too much has also been found to increase blood pressure and decrease the diameter of arteries, making heart disease more likely.
Reason #2: It Impairs Insulin Sensitivity, Putting You in the Diabetes Danger Zone
Sitting has been linked to insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes. In one investigation, on the day participants sat for five consecutive hours after consuming a high-calorie drink, their plasma insulin and glucose levels were more than 20 percent higher than on days when they interrupted sitting with short breaks. Other research suggests that sitting for just two hours after a meal could increase your blood sugar levels. Over time, that sets the stage for insulin resistance and diabetes. (6, 7)
Reason #3: You Set the Stage for Osteoporosis in Your Lifetime
Researchers now associate sitting with lower bone mineral density and osteoporosis in both men and women. (8, 9) The lower your bone mineral density—think calcium and phosphorus—the weaker your bones. Some of the latest studies have looked at adolescents and the amount of time they spend at a computer, watching television, or playing video games, finding a negative association between sitting and bone mineral content and density, particularly in teenage boys. (10, 11, 12)
Reason #4: You Boost Your Chance of Cancer …
… by up to 66 percent, according to one study. (13) Researchers found sedentary behavior to be associated with a:
- 24 percent higher risk of developing colon cancer
- 32 percent greater chance of endometrial cancer
- 21 percent increased risk of lung cancer
Watching TV, in particular, was associated with a 54 percent higher likelihood of colon cancer and 66 percent greater chance of endometrial cancer. These links remained strong even in people who worked out regularly. A large study also linked sitting to a higher risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and multiple myeloma. (14)
Reason #5: You Lose Your Mind—Literally
One recent study from UCLA reported that participants who sat for long stretches of time had thinning in regions of the brain involved in memory formation. This decreased thickness can serve as a precursor to cognitive decline and dementia. (15)
Reason #6: Ultimately, It Can Kill You
Multiple studies from around the globe have found an association between increased sedentary time and the risk of early death. In the summer of 2018, results of a survey of more than 125,000 adults were released that found that those who sat for six or more hours a day were 19 percent more likely to die over the next two decades than those who spent less time sitting once their workday was over. And the higher risk of death remained even in people who exercised. (16)
Think Exercise Is the Only Answer? Think Again
Notice something about many of the studies shared above? Several found the same negative health outcomes in people who were completely sedentary and “weekend warriors,” those who worked out but still spent the majority of each day seated. And there are many other studies that confirm those conclusions.
Some research even suggests that people who exercise intensely, like marathon runners, are more likely to be sedentary when they’re not exercising, falsely assuming their training offers them the full benefits of exercise and protects them from the harmful effects of sitting. (17) What’s more, in some cases marathons, triathlons, and long-distance bicycle rides can result in overtraining, and studies have linked these activities with heart, muscle, and joint damage. (18, 19)
In industrialized societies, this “active couch potato” phenomenon has unfortunately 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 a day) sitting on your butt. This is far outside of the evolutionary norm for humans, and it has serious consequences for our health.
How to Get the Benefits of Exercise: Stop Being Sedentary and Move Like Your Ancestors
What is the evolutionary norm? Our hunter–gatherer ancestors didn’t work out; they just lived. They naturally spent a lot of time outdoors in the sun—walking, hunting, and gathering. They had to exert themselves, and often quite strenuously, to survive. Our ancestors sprinted, jogged, climbed, carried, and jumped intermittently throughout the day, on top of walking and running. They also alternated strenuous and demanding days with days of rest, an instinctual response that protected them from injury and fatigue.
One of the easiest ways to undo the harmful effects of sitting is simply to stand up! Standing engages muscles that boost LPL activity and boosts your metabolism. (20) In general, I recommend standing or walking for at least 50 percent of your day.
- Use a standing desk. There are several types of standing desks on the market, ranging from stationary to adjustable models, or you can make one yourself. (A few low-tech ideas: Try putting your laptop on a sturdy box or crate, an old speaker stand, or even some stacked books.) Many employers permit them and even provide them for their employees.
- Take standing breaks. If you’re unable to work at a standing desk, be sure to stand up for at least two minutes every 30 to 45 minutes, and either stretch or take a quick walk (do this when you’re sitting at home, too). Even short breaks like this can make a huge difference. Set a timer on your phone or look for an app that will remind you to move on a regular basis. Also try standing for part or all of your meetings.
Again, let’s keep it simple: Walk more and sit less. (Other light exercise such as gardening and household cleaning is also beneficial.) Research has shown that even low to moderate physical activity like walking lowers post-meal blood sugar, insulin, and triglyceride levels. (21)
- Walk while you work with a treadmill desk. I use a treadmill desk myself and average between 15,000 and 18,000 steps a day. As with standing desks, there are several options for configuration. You can buy a treadmill for an existing standing desk or buy a desk that fits above your existing treadmill.
- Hold walking meetings. Who says meetings have to sit around a boardroom table?
- Walk or bicycle to work. If you live too far away to walk or ride exclusively, consider driving part of the way and commuting on foot or bike for the remainder.
- Use the stairs whenever possible, and rack up steps.
- Find a hobby that moves you. Ballroom dancing, bowling, gardening, and cooking are fun choices that get you walking around. Pick something that’s fun and that fits your lifestyle—that’s the key to sticking with it.
In addition to standing and walking more, you need to occasionally push yourself as our ancestors did with bouts of more intense exercise; just don’t overdo it. I recommend following the guidelines established by my friend and colleague Dan Pardi.
- Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (jogging, yoga, or dancing), which requires 50 to 70 percent of your maximum effort to perform; OR
- Get 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week (running, Zumba, or sports), which takes 70 to 90 percent of your maximum effort; OR
- Complete 30 sets (roughly 30 minutes) of highest-intensity exercise per week (sprinting, jumping rope, or resistance training), which needs greater than 90 percent of your maximum effort; OR
- Do some combination of the above.
A note about your maximum effort: I use percentages here because your “maximum effort” will differ from someone else’s based on a number of factors. Someone who’s living a sedentary lifestyle, for example, might consider a light jog to be a vigorous-intensity workout, while a runner might call it moderate. The key is to pay attention to your body and push yourself.
The third bullet refers to a type of exercise often called high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves performing movements at very high intensity for very short periods of time, usually between 30 seconds and two minutes. If you’ve been taught that “chronic cardio” (as Mark Sisson calls it) is the way to go, this approach may seem too good to be true, yet studies have found HIIT superior on nearly every level. It’s a great option to help you move like your ancestors.
I hope you now see that truly active living is key to optimal well-being, and that as long as you sit for the bulk of your day, you run the health risks of a sedentary life. If you want to get the full benefits of exercise, it’s time to SWAP things up.
Now, I’d like to hear from you. What’s your exercise routine? How long do you sit in a typical day? Let me know below in the comments!