The Real Problem With Too Much Sitting

Sitting is not the new smoking, though I love the analogy. Smoking is an expensive, optional vice that smells bad and causes cancer. Sitting is free, for some is not optional, is not malodorous, and is unlikely to cause cancer — or is it? What smoking and sitting share is the potential to destroy our quality of life and shorten it.

Saddlebags aside, sitting does most of its damage on the inside.

(Though we do burn less fat while sitting and it’s not just due to not moving. Read on to find out how. ) The effect of sedentary days on your age-youthfully potential is subtle but serious. Yes, we live in a sit-oriented world, and sitting down feels good. It makes eating more pleasurable. Snuggling is best on a cozy couch or chair.  Standing desks are more common but some say that writing sitting down helps with focus.

The question is not, to sit or not to sit, the question is how much is okay and what to do if our jobs require we be seated?

Those who sit most are at greater risk for heart disease because blood flow is less vigorous. Just as any muscle atrophies with disuse, the heart muscle weakens if it’s not “exercised” by movement.

Insulin is the hormone that moves blood sugar out of the blood and into cells where it can be used for energy. Idle muscle cells don’t respond as well to circulating insulin as active ones. You end up with more blood sugar than gets used. This can lead to diabetes. One day of prolonged sitting begins this cycle.

Contrast this with simply standing up — no exercise, no moving yet. According to Dr. James Levine, co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative, and author of the book Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, “Within 90 seconds of standing up the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol — which are mediated by insulin — are activated. All of these molecular effects are activated simply by carrying your own bodyweight.”

Let’s talk posture. Sitting in chairs compresses the spine. Hunching over a desk or computer puts the spine and head in unnatural positions and puts stress on vertebrae and disks. Disks are meant to flex and expand to facilitate absorbing blood and nutrients. When you get up once every 60 to 90 minutes, you reestablish blood flow and oxygenation.

This fact surprised me but it makes so much sense. Your lymphatic system is like the garbage disposal system of your body. It is responsible for filtering and eliminating toxins and uses lymph fluid to move things out to the organs of elimination. Unlike blood, which gets pumped by your heart, and oxygen which the lungs are responsible for moving, lymph needs you to move. Our muscles act as the pump for this elimination system. Lymph also carries white blood cells where they need to go, so more sitting means less inflammation-fighting cells circulated.

This short (5 Mins) video from TedEd does a great job of showing you what I’ve been telling.

It touches on how our brains need movement to function best — we were literally born to move and think better on our feet. John Medina wrote a book called Brain Rules, a great read or audiobook if you are interested in memory, learning, thinking, etc. In it, he writes, “The human brain evolved under conditions of almost constant motion. From this, one might predict that the optimal environment for processing information would include motion. That is exactly what one finds. Indeed, the best business meeting would have everyone walking at about 1.8 miles per hour.

Researchers studied two elderly populations that had led different lifestyles, one sedentary and one active. Cognitive scores were profoundly influenced. Exercise positively affected executive function, spatial tasks, reaction times and quantitative skills.”

What to do about all this sitting?

Get up frequently throughout the day. Move enough to get some blood flowing. Stretch, bend, reach for the stars. Daily exercise is good, but doesn’t let us off the hook in terms of health; we have to move throughout the day. Set a timer to remind you but don’t blow it off. Find a countertop you can put a box on and use your laptop standing up or buy a desk adapter like this one from Ergotron.

The double bonus of creating new habits to decrease sitting and increase movement is new neural pathways in the brain. It’s one way we help the brain age youthfully. It might take some time to get used to working standing up if you choose to go that route. Now knowing what you just read — read the stats again if they haven’t sunk in — isn’t now a good time to stand up for your health?