Too much sitting can be deadly

You might want to sit down before you read this — or, rather, stand up.

Australian researchers have found that long hours spent sitting in front of the TV can dramatically increase risk of death from heart complications and other conditions.

For the study, published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers studied the lifestyle habits of 8,800 adults for an average of six years. Findings suggested that people who watched TV for more than four hours a day were 80 per cent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease and 46 per cent more likely to die of any cause than people who spent less than two hours in front of the television.

And it’s not just couch potatoes who are at risk. Even people who exercise regularly face increased risk the longer they sit in front of the TV, researchers say. While regular exercise is linked to a myriad of health benefits, the problem here has to do with the amount of time most of us spend sitting each day — and not just in front of the television. Modern life has become more sedentary, especially when you factor in time spent driving or riding the train to work, sitting in front of the computer at home and at the office, and engaging in leisure activities like watching TV, reading a book, or going to a movie.

“A lot of the normal activities of daily living that involved standing up and moving the muscles in the body have been converted to sitting,” study leader David Dunstan, of the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, said in a release.

“Technological, social, and economic changes mean that people don’t move their muscles as much as they used to — consequently the levels of energy expenditure as people go about their lives continue to shrink. For many people, on a daily basis, they simply shift from one chair to another, from the chair in the car to the chair in the office to the chair in front of the television.”

The findings apply not only to individuals who are overweight and obese, but also those who have a healthy weight. “Even if someone has a healthy body weight, sitting for long periods of time still has an unhealthy influence on their blood sugar and blood fats,” Dunstan said.

The study also ruled out other common cardiovascular disease risk factors, including smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, unhealthy diet, and excessive waist circumference.

We’re made to move

What it boils down to, researchers say, is that the human body evolved to move — not sit still for extended periods of time.

So what can be done? While we can control how many hours we spend lounging in front of the tube, we may not be able to change the fact that our work demands long hours at our desks or in front of our computers. Here a few simple strategies that can help.


Don’t take work sitting down

Ernest Hemingway was known to write some of his best prose while standing — not sitting — in front of his typewriter. (Lewis Carroll, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf among others, apparently also wrote while standing up.) While some businesses now offer employees ‘standing’ desks or even desks equipped with a treadmill, many people don’t have these options. Here are a few tips on how to be less sedentary at work:

Look for opportunities to stand. Whether you’re talking on the phone, reorganizing files or flipping through a report, try to stand while you do so. And habitual pacers are certainly on to something: If you’re thinking through a difficult problem, go ahead and pace if your space allows for it, or at least work in a few quick, head clearing stretches.

Do it the old-fashioned way. Trade emails, instant messages and phone calls for walks to colleagues’ desks or offices to communicate in person.

Conduct meetings on the go. Whenever it’s practical, schedule walking meetings or brainstorming sessions. Take your walking meetings outdoors if the weather permits, or in the corridors of your building.

Take stretching or fitness breaks. Instead of hanging out in the lounge with a coffee or snack, take a brisk walk or do some gentle stretching. Whenever possible, use part of your lunch break to engage in some physical activity like a quick jaunt around the block.

Make the most of your commute. If you ride the bus, train or subway to work, try standing at least part of the way. And you may want to consider getting off a few blocks early or park at the far end of the parking lot to add more physical activity to your daily commute.

Multi-task while watching television

Small changes in how you watch television can make a big difference, experts say. For example, you can make TV viewing less sedentary by engaging in light household chores while you’re watching television, such as folding laundry, watering houseplants or dusting.

Even better, if you have a treadmill or stationary bike, position it in front of the TV and enjoy your favourite show and get some exercise at the same time. You can also keep moving with sit-ups or relaxing stretches.

Sources: American Heart Association; Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association abstract; Mayo Clinic; WebMD.

Photo © Dean Turner

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