Article for Cape Fear Living Magazine
Article Title: “Sitting Can Kill You”
Submitted by Dr. R. Todd Shaver
27 March 2015
If the headline of this month’s article strikes you as alarmist hyperbole, then please keep reading. An already large and steadily growing body of research clearly demonstrates that sitting is a health risk. For instance, a 2015 research review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that sitting for extended periods is associated with a significantly higher risk of life-threatening ailments like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Sedentary lifestyle has also been associated with increased risk for developing dementia. The British medical journal, The Lancet, published research in 2012 concluding that inactivity is as damaging to health as smoking cigarettes. Yes, sitting can kill you.
The average American spends more than half of waking time seated according to a 2008 study involving 6300 people published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. This is sad but not surprising; sedentary behavior is pervasive in modern society. Drive to work. Sit in front of a computer all day. Drive home. Sit in front of the TV until bedtime. This general pattern represents the lifestyle of most Americans.
OK, so people sit a lot. But is that really such a big deal? Well, as it turns out, yes, it is a really big deal. An American Cancer Society study of 123,000 people over a 16 year period concluded that women who sat for over 6 hours per day were 94% more likely to die during the course of the study as compared to women who sat for less than 3 hours per day. Men who sat for over 6 hours per day were 48% more likely to die than their more active counterparts. But wait, it gets scarier still: these negative effects of sitting were found to be just as strong in people who exercised regularly. In other words, even if you hit the gym for an hour every morning, subsequently sitting all day may negate the health benefits of exercise. The American Journal of Epidemiology published this study in 2010.
A more recent study found that each hour of daily sitting may cause a 14% increase in the risk of heart disease. Scientists from the Medical College of Wisconsin recently studied a group of over 2000 people averaging 50 years of age. Subjects in the study spent between two to 12 hours a day sitting. The number of hours each participant spent sitting each day was compared with the levels of deposits in blood vessels (doctors view these deposits in blood vessels as a signal for heart disease). The researchers found that the levels of deposit rose by 14% for every hour spent sitting.
Sitting for extended periods also increases the risk of symptoms related to stress on the spine including symptoms like headaches, back and neck pain, and tingling or numbness in the extremities. Sitting creates more stress on the spine than any other routine posture. The spine requires movement, and lots of it, for optimal health and function.
Enough of the bad news, now on to the good. But, stay with me because this next part is complicated. To avoid the health risks associated with extended periods of sitting, one must not sit for extended periods. Rather, one must regularly get up from the chair. Hmm. Not so complicated after all. That is good news. For instance, a March 2015 Reuters Health report discussed research recently published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Researchers studied a group of 519 adults with type 2 diabetes for two years. Participants in the study wore accelerometers on their waists to measure activity levels and also provided blood samples for measurement of their cholesterol, triglyceride, insulin and glucose levels. According to the report, participants in the study were able to reduce their waist circumference, lose weight, and improve their metabolic health by simply interrupting long periods of sitting with periodic standing, walking up stairs, or even just changing the TV station manually. Even better results were observed by study participants who engaged in moderate or light-to-moderate physical exercise in addition to the above interruptions. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans wisely counsels that 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise is best. Unfortunately, not all Americans are making that sort of time for exercise; this study suggests that doing something, even if just getting up from the chair frequently to change the channel or walk about the house, is vastly better than doing nothing.
There are many good reasons to get off the couch. Reduce your risk for obesity; you burn 30% more calories when you are standing than when you are sitting. Increase your productivity; Business Insider reports that standing workstations increase productivity by 10% and Ipsos Market Research found that 60% of employees surveyed were convinced that their productivity would increase if they had the option to work on their feet. Prevent back pain; the American Chiropractic Association recommends avoiding extended periods of sitting and inactivity as part of the strategy to prevent back pain and other symptoms of spinal origin. Improve your mood and your thinking; research shows that physical activity sharpens cognitive clarity, improves mood, and reduces risk for emotional/mental health issues. In short, to live a longer life of better quality, get off the couch and get out of that chair. Sitting can kill you. Enough said, it’s a beautiful day and I’m going for a run; hope to see you out there!