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Sitting all day can be hazardous to your health, exercise no help

It doesn’t matter how hip the office, how ergonomic the chair, or even if you exercise five times a week — anyone who spends entire days sitting is at risk and needs to get up and move


We love to sit. Be it on a couch, in a car, at a desk, in front of a screen or at the dinner table, the average adult spends over 90% of his waking hours with his/her butt firmly ensconced in a chair. This ubiquitous habit has not only taken over a good portion of our day, but it often goes uninterrupted for several hours.

The other side of this ugly statistic is that only 1% to 5% of those waking hours is spent performing moderate to physical activity with only 0.5% to 1% of this activity being sustained for at least 10 minutes.

This society of sitters has prompted health experts to examine the consequences of going from the breakfast table, to the car, to a desk, back to the table and finally to the couch in front of the TV. What they found isn’t pretty. Each two-hour increase in daily time spent sitting is associated with a 5% to 23% increase in the risk of obesity and a 7% to 14% increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes. An enhanced probability of metabolic syndrome and ovarian cancer are also consequences of prolonged sitting.

According to a study published in the July 2008 edition of Current Cardiovascular Risk Results, the health consequences that develop from too much sitting are very different from those that result from too little exercise. In fact, the authors of the study have gone as far as labelling prolonged sitting as “a distinct health hazard.”

If that’s not scary enough, experts also suggest that future trends in communication, transportation and workplace technology could lead to even more time spent sitting.

For the most part, we seem relatively happy spending most of our day seated. That is until we have to let our belt out a notch or two or our bodies start to protest from all the inactivity. A study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that workers who spent 95% of their day sitting increased their risk of neck pain.

How do you conquer the effects of prolonged sitting? Exercise helps, but it’s only a small part in the battle to reduce the amount of time spent in a chair. Experts suggest that even regular exercisers can be chronic sitters.

Look at the average day in the life of active people and you can understand their point. They arrive to work at 9 a.m. and sit at their desk until noon, only to return after a 60-minute workout to spend another four hours back at their desk. Add the seated hours spent travelling to and from work and in front of a TV or computer screen and you can see how the time spent sitting dwarfs the time spent exercising.

To further solidify their point, researchers evaluated the health of men and women who reported exercising five days a week for 30 minutes, a standard that is generally considered active enough to benefit health and fitness. What they found was surprising. Waist size, blood pressure and cholesterol levels were all negatively affected by time spent sitting. Also worth noting is that the results were more pronounced in women than in men.

In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers labelled this unique subset of the population “active couch potatoes.”

So, if regular exercise doesn’t counteract the ill effects of sitting, what does?

That’s easy. Get up and move. Often.

To be clear, I’m not talking about just exercising at your desk or hitting the stairs for an impromptu workout. Simple activities like:

  • standing up to answer the phone
  • walking down the hall to fill a water bottle
  • and walking to a colleague’s office (instead of sending an email), have shown to increase daily activity and reduce weight gain.

Research indicates that people who take frequent breaks during long periods of sedentary activity will have a waist circumference that, on average, is 5.9 centimetres less than that of people who are less inclined to get out of their chair.

More and more companies are in tune with the consequences of a sedentary work force and are hailing the benefits of moving more in the workplace. There’s also a call by some health experts to set up new health guidelines that suggest how often our sitting habit needs to be interrupted.

That doesn’t mean you need to wait for a set of guidelines before getting off your butt on a regular basis. Start kicking the sitting habit now. Budget five minutes of every hour to get out of your chair. Stand, stretch or go for a walk.

And if your boss asks what you’re doing away from your desk, invite him to stand alongside you while you explain the consequences of being an active couch potato.

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