Take a stand against sitting

By David Solondz, M.D., family medicine and integrative medicine physician at Providence Medical Group-Cascade and co-medical director of Providence Integrative Medicine Program

New evidence points to serious health risks in doing something that we've always done, often all day long, for most of our lives: sitting. This seemingly harmless activity – or more accurately, nonactivity – has been linked recently to significant increases in the risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and shortened lifespan, among other ills. Some stats from recent studies:

  • Men who sit for five or more hours a day outside of work are at least 34 percent more likely to develop heart failure than men who sit for two hours or less – regardless of how much they exercise. 
  • Prolonged sitting boosts the risk for fatal cancers by 21 percent – even if you exercise regularly.
  • Sedentary time has a stronger link to critical diabetes markers than total physical activity.
  • People who watch a lifetime average of six hours of TV per day can expect to live about five years less than people who watch no TV.
  • People who sit for 11 hours a day have a 40 percent higher risk of dying in the next three years than people who sit for four hours a day.

While “sitting is bad” isn't exactly news, the extent of its badness is. We're finally gathering some solid data on the negative health consequences of sitting around, and they're worse than we thought. The research is revealing that it's not just lack of exercise that's the problem – long periods of simply sitting, where your body is in a completely metabolically inactive state, is a separate, independent risk factor for chronic disease. 

In addition to the deconditioning and weakening effect that sitting around has on your core body muscles, it also causes changes in your metabolism that make your body less effective at processing the food you eat, leading to higher blood sugar spikes after meals. High blood sugar promotes a state of inflammation in the body, which we're learning is a key driver of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. 

Take a stand for your health

While we have some general guidelines for activity – most sources recommend getting at least 30 minutes of activity three to five times a week – we don't yet have guidelines to tell us what to do about all that sitting. There's reason to hope that these new studies will help change that. Until then, some doctors and researchers are already weighing in. James Levine, the co-director of Obesity Solutions at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, suggests getting up and moving around for 10 minutes every hour. Columnists Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D., recommend two minutes of movement every 30 minutes. 

My position on sitting? Just do less of it. If you can work in two minutes of movement every 30 minutes without it becoming a big deal, then great. If 10 minutes every hour is more your style, so much the better. The point is not to set up hurdles or overly ambitious goals for yourself – just find small, simple ways to integrate more movement into your normal day. 

Set an hourly timer if that helps you remember, or just try harder to be more aware of how long you're sitting and break it up. Stand up for a while and shift from foot to foot instead of sitting. Walk around and say hi to your co-workers. Go get a glass of water. When you get out of your chair, raise and lower yourself several times to wake up the large muscles in your legs. Consider every phone call an opportunity to stand up and pace, every commercial a reminder to get off the couch and stretch or walk in place. Look into switching to a sit-to-stand desk at work, or sit on a yoga ball instead of a chair to keep your core muscles engaged. I could go on and on, but I'm sure you have your own ideas, now that you're thinking about it.

Newton's first law of motion states that a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and that's true of the human body, too: If you want to be able to keep moving as you get older, move more now – not just once a day when you exercise, but throughout the day as well. 

Start now. Get up, grab a pen and paper and make a list of five small things you can do to incorporate a little movement into every hour. Post your list wherever you spend most of your sitting time, and give your new moves a try. We could all stand to move a little more. Make your stand today.