The trouble with sitting

Published 5:58 pm Saturday, August 9, 2014

By Meagan Overman

For the Daily News

We have all heard the phrase that we need to “move more,” but have you heard that we also need to “sit less?” If not, then you have now! Sitting is now being studied independently to learn more about what effect it has on us physiologically and also on our health for the future. With that said, sitting in itself is not a bad thing, but prolonged sitting can be detrimental to our health.

It’s no secret that many of us sit more now than we ever have in the history of time, mostly due to advances in technology. We can spend the majority of our day in a chair by watching television, working at a desk, playing video games, ordering take-out or delivery, driving, reading, shopping online, banking online, and “spending time” with our loved ones through social media. In fact, a study by the University of Queensland reported the average American spends nearly eight hours per day in sedentary behaviors (not including sleeping)! Older adolescents, ages 16-19 years old, and adults aged 60 and older were the most sedentary, spending 60 percent of their time in sedentary behaviors. With 640 muscles and 206 bones, our bodies were made to be in frequent motion, so what impact does sitting have on our health?

Prolonged, unbroken sitting time has been shown to increase the risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and all health causes of mortality. Scientists believe that too much sitting impairs the body’s ability to deposit fat from the blood stream into tissue. This results in elevated levels of fat in the blood and increases one’s risk of heart disease. In addition, prolonged sitting also impairs the functioning of the body’s healthy cholesterol, HDL, which is a scavenger for plaque that can stick to clean arteries. Like fat, sugar can also become elevated in the blood stream, and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. Prolonged sitting also lowers the body’s metabolic rate, and decreases the ability to burn calories, which may lead to weight gain. A study from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst even found an increase in appetite when sitting for prolonged periods of time, which also may contribute to weight gain.

One of the most profound findings of the most recent research on sitting is that physical activity does not cancel out the effects of too much prolonged sitting during the day. In other words, even among active adults, who participate in 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on most days of the week, prolonged amounts of time sitting were still associated with poor metabolic health. This finding has been called the “active couch potato” effect. One Canadian health study, with a sample of over 17,000 participants, found that there is a strong relationship between sitting and all health causes of mortality, even when people were meeting the minimum physical activity guidelines. They found the highest mortality risk was in obese men and women who spend most of their waking time sitting.

With that said, we must start to think about sitting and exercise as two separate behaviors because they each contribute to our health individually. In other words, we know that exercise cannot compensate for a bad night’s sleep, so we cannot expect it to compensate for sitting all day. Researchers have not yet determined how much sitting is “too much,” but have suggested that if we do sit for prolonged amounts of time, we should get up and move every 30 minutes if possible. When you take a break from sitting, the activity required by our muscles for even standing and other movement triggers important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body. There are plenty of ways to start “sitting less” both at work and during your daily life. During your daily life, try taking a Sunday walk instead of a Sunday nap, stand up or march in place during TV commercials, take the stairs, park farther away, pace the sidelines at your child’s or grandchild’s athletic games, pick up a new active hobby like cycling or hiking and walk briskly wherever you go. While at work, you can stand up or pace while talking on the phone, walk during breaks, walk to a colleague’s desk instead of calling or emailing them and stand up whenever possible.

There’s no question that most of us seek to live long, healthy lives, but we must consider the consequences to living the life of a couch potato and how that impacts our health. It is important to commit to 30 minutes of physical activity each day, but also making changes in how often we move is just as important to our overall health. In other words, “move more” and “sit less!”

Meagan Overman, MS, is a clinical exercise physiologist at Vidant Wellness Center and can be reached at 252-975-4236.