Chairs, disease, and death
Are you sitting down while you’re reading this? Well stop doing that. Because here’s some news: Sitting might just be pretty darn dangerous.
Everyone knows vegging on the couch all day isn’t going to do you any good, but being sedentary for long periods may in fact be so harmful that exercise alone cannot protect you from its negative effects. Studies suggest that even those who work out regularly are still putting themselves at risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even certain cancers if they are sitting for more than eight hours per day.
Which is a problem. Because that’s what many of you reading this are doing.
Research into ‘inactivity physiology’ actually has roots in a 1950s study of drivers and conductors on London’s double-decker buses. It showed conductors had a fifty percent lower mortality rate from coronary heart disease when compared to drivers. Researchers suggested this massive difference was due to drivers sitting all day while conductors moved around constantly.
Fast-forward to 2012 when a group of researchers analysed multiple studies (covering more than 800,000 people in total) and concluded from their findings that prolonged sitting had a negative effect on insulin resistance – a key contributor to development of diabetes.
But how strong is this link, and could there be other factors at play? And what exactly is going on in our bodies when we sit for extended periods of time?
What sitting does to the body
The study of this particular subject area (which some in the medical community have playfully called “sittosis”) falls under physical activity epidemiology, yet in many ways what we’re actually examining is inactivity and its effects.
Anyone who sits for long periods knows well the associated wrist, neck, and back problems that can develop. But what we’re interested in here is how being sedentary affects metabolism and increases our risk of cardiometabolic disease.
It’s all tied to the fact that sitting, quite simply, slows everything down. And once muscle movement and metabolism decrease, the body no longer regulates blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol as effectively as when we’re moving.
Regular readers will know that these three factors are very much tied to the development of diseases such as diabetes as well as cardiovascular problems and certain cancers. In addition, it is thought that there may be hormonal changes going on when we sit for long periods as well.
Dr. Joan Vernikos, a former NASA scientist, has written a book that touches in large part on this very subject. Dr. Vernikos worked with astronauts for three decades, and based on her research she suggests lying and sitting have similar effects on the body than that which zero gravity has on astronauts – which is to rapidly speed up the aging process.
“Studies suggest that even those who work out regularly are still putting themselves at risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even certain cancers”
It’s not all negative
The good news is that once you start moving again, your body very quickly – within a minute or two – starts functioning properly again.
And so as not to cause panic, it’s worth pointing out that the research is not yet conclusive when it comes to the exact nature of the relationship between sitting and health. Many studies strongly suggest a cause-effect link between sitting and many serious diseases, but there is also research that suggests most of the evidence up to this point has only shown an association between the two – and in fact not a causal relationship.
The studies also do not fully take into account other important factors such as diet, smoking, and alcohol consumption. For example, the London bus driver/conductor study found that other factors may have been at play regarding longevity, including the fact that the conductors were generally smaller in size than the drivers.
Regardless of what we can say definitively or not, common sense does tell us that lots of movement during the day is a good thing – along with a healthy lifestyle including a balanced diet, plenty of exercise, and good sleeping habits. So with this in mind, and given that many of us work long hours while sitting, let’s look at some practical steps everyone can take.
An easy fix
The good news is that there is a lot you can do. If we keep in mind that the human being was designed to be in constant movement (even if that movement is minimal), then we start to get a sense of how we can adjust our daily routine.
So let’s run through seven things you can do to make a difference:
• Set a timer so you don’t sit for longer than thirty minutes without getting up and moving.
• Monitor your movement during the week – there are plenty of apps for your phone that can do this.
• If you’re on the bus or train during your daily commute, choose to stand rather than sit.
• When getting lunch or coffee during your work day, have a quick walk around the office.
• If your phone rings, get into the habit of standing up to take the call – after a while it will become second nature.
• If you work from home, try a standing desk or even a treadmill desk to keep your body in motion.
• If you’re watching TV, take a break to stand up – you don’t even have to press pause.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.