Why Sitting is the New Smoking
How sitting is damaging your body
Studies have long associated sedentary behaviour with poor health outcomes. In the 1950s a study published in the Lancet showed that bus drivers (who sit) had about double the risk of developing heart disease compared to bus conductors (who stand).
Since then, studies have shown that as soon as you sit:
- Electrical activity in the leg muscles shuts down
- Calorie burning drops to ~78 calories per hour (compared to ~99 calories per hour when you stand; this is ~160 calories per 8-hour day)
- Lipoprotein lipase (an enzyme that helps breakdown fat) falls by 90%
After 2 hours:
- High density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol) falls by 20%
After 24 hours:
- Insulin (a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels) effectiveness falls by 24% and risk of diabetes rises
What’s more, researchers have distinguished sweat-inducing, huffing-and-puffing kind of activity, from everyday, walking-to-the-printer-and-back kind of activity, or what has been called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Working from a desk you would use about 300 NEAT calories a day, compared to working on your feet, where you would use about 1,300 NEAT calories a day.
What is even more shocking is that active individuals – those who exercise for at least 5 hours per week – have an increased risk of death if they sit longer. This is because a standing body consumes energy differently from a sedentary body – and also from an exercising one. There is a big difference between exercising too little, and sitting too much.
How to undo the damage without clocking hours at the gym
Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Leonardo da Vinci all knew it. Every trendy office now knows it too: there is a lot to gain from working standing up. From standing desks, treadmill desks and fitness trackers, to groundbreaking pilot experiments in schools, the movement to sit less and stand more is well underway.
“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that prolonged sitting is shortening our lives and also our quality of life. … In the same way that standing up is an oddity now, sitting down should be.” Dr. James Levine, director of obesity solutions at the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, and inventor of the first treadmill desk.
Levine and his team strapped sensors to the legs and backs of school students to measure their NEAT levels in a standing, mobile classroom. After 2 months, the NEAT sensors showed that students had double the activity level in the standing classroom compared to the traditional classroom, and they scored up to 20% higher on state standardized tests.
“By simply shifting to a standing workday, you can burn 500 to 1,000 extra calories a day”, says Levine. Standing just 3 hours a day, for 1 year, is the equivalent of running 10 marathons.
How to not die from sitting too much:
- Try a standing desk – you can purchase one, or you can DIY with desks on top of desks, stacks of books or boxes. As long as your monitor is eye level to reduce strain on your neck, and your desk or keyboard height is such that your elbows are at 90 degrees.
- Try to take a walk every hour – even if it’s just down the hall and back.
- If you use public transportation to commute, stand instead of sitting.
- Get rid of wheely desk chairs so that you have to stand up and move around your workspace.
For more information:
“Sitting Time and All-Cause Mortality Risk in 222 497 Australian Adults” is a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.