“Sitting is the new smoking”… at least that has become one of the taglines used in headlines of news articles that discuss the last few decades of research that have highlighted the dangers of sitting and the negative health consequences of spending hours a day on a chair at work.
But… is there any truth to this idea and if there is, what can we do about it?
What Happens When You Sit
While saying “sitting is the new smoking” may be a bit hyperbolic, there is actually a large body of research that has clearly demonstrated that spending all day sitting at your desk carries health risks.
These health risks include pushing your cardiovascular and metabolic disease risk factors in the direction of increasing your risk for disease. This includes higher blood sugar levels, higher triglycerides, lower HDL-cholesterol (the good kind), higher blood pressure, and lower insulin sensitivity.
What are the Side Effects of Sitting Too Long?
It turns out that sitting has very distinct effects on the human body that all conspire together to cause metabolic problems.
Sitting directly affects glucose metabolism in such a way that the body ends up accumulating excess glucose in the bloodstream. Specifically, sitting for extended periods of time results in less blood glucose being used to fuel activity. And since our body is designed to keep blood sugar levels within a range, this actually causes the body to increase it’s insulin signaling to send more glucose into the muscle cells.
Additionally, sitting can affect your blood vessels and your body’s ability to properly regulate blood pressure. More specifically, sitting for long periods of time actually decreases the elasticity and health of the arteries and vessels of your lower body.
What Can You Do About It?
Before we dive into exactly what to do about this, let’s discuss what we cannot do about it first.
It turns out that we can’t just “exercise” our way out of this. I mean we probably can with a crazy amount of exercise, but for most people, the research suggests that sitting for 8 straight hours a day and then exercising one hour a day is not enough to negate the amount of sitting we do. In fact, a very large meta-analysis found that sitting is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetes independent of exercise.
With that out of the way, what can we actually do about this… I mean, most of us have to sit at our desk and work. Well, it turns out that the best thing you can do is simply break up your sitting time and take frequent, short breaks.
These short breaks can include either standing or walking with talking short walking breaks being the optimal way to break up sitting. In an ideal world, you could take a 5 minute standing or walking break every 30 minutes. However, for many people this is not always feasible so it may look more like standing up every 20-30 minutes and working for 5-10 minutes while standing and taking a 5 minute walking break every couple hours.
Also, one of the single best ways to combat sitting all day is to take walking meetings whenever possible. If it is a phone meeting, take the call while walking. If it is an in-person meeting, see if you can coordinate it with a walk if it does not necessarily require it to be a working meeting.
The Take Home
Sitting for extended periods of time is not great for your long-term health as it increases your risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Unfortunately, just exercising once a day is not enough to offset 8 hours a day of sitting. However, taking frequent breaks by standing and walking for a few minutes every 30 minutes or so can substantially reduce the risk you incur from sitting at work all day.