According to a fat stack of recent research, “sitting is the new smoking.” It’s something we all do way too much of, without really grasping the long-term health effects of it.
Sitting for just three or more hours per day increases a person’s risk of chronic disease and cuts their life expectancy by two years. (Whoops. Americans sit about 9.5 hours per day.) In fact, sitting for more than three hours per day has these effects even if you’re otherwise physically active–exercising for the recommended 30 minutes per day doesn’t make up for an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.
A two-year reduction in life expectancy may not seem that significant, but it’s a sign of bigger problems: Our sedentary lifestyles contribute significantly to an increased risk of breast and colon cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. (And clearly, these diseases can shave off way more than two years.)
So what’s so bad about sitting anyway?
When you’re sitting, your muscles are inactive and your body isn’t able to manage blood glucose normally. This contributes to metabolic syndrome (the inability to maintain healthy blood glucose levels), which leads to abnormally high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. These factors increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Higher blood sugar levels are also associated with an increased risk of certain types of cancer.
It’s a bit confusing that something as seemingly harmless as sitting has so many detrimental health effects. But even though sitting itself isn’t dangerous, your body is not meant to sit still for long periods of time.
Much of the day should be spent in NEAT–non-exercise activity thermogenesis. That means moving around at a comfortable and easy pace, just doing basic human things and using your body the way it was meant to be used. Walking, reaching, carrying, lifting, bending, sitting for a bit, standing up.
Until very recently in human history, NEAT was an integral part of our daily lives. You can probably imagine your grandparents back in the day getting tons of NEAT: walking to the market to get groceries and carrying them home; doing the laundry and hanging it out to dry; squatting to weed the flower or vegetable garden. Even your parents when they started their office jobs probably walked down the hall to talk to a coworker, or took trips back and forth from the filing cabinet (instead of emailing that coworker or storing files on a computer).
These types of natural human movements have been replaced by technology and lifestyle changes, resulting in a dramatic decrease in NEAT movement throughout the day. So, not only do most Americans fall short of minimum exercise guidelines (150 minutes per week), but we also don’t “gently move around” enough either.
Desk jobs in particular promote this problem, because they require that people sit for many more hours per day than is normal or healthy for your body. It turns out that people who work sedentary jobs have twice the risk of cancer, particularly colon and rectal cancers (eek).
So. That sucks, but there are some things you can do to improve the situation without quitting your job.
Tips for sitting less and moving around more at the office:
- Get up and move around at least 5-10 minutes out of every hour. When you need to fill your water bottle, use the bathroom, or get something from the printer, take the long route.
- Take microbreaks every 20 to 30 minutes–stand up and stretch for a minute or two.
- Stand up when you can–like when you’re talking on the phone, chatting with a coworker, or organizing papers.
- Get a whiteboard in your office for keeping track of your to-do list or outlining projects. It’s hard to write on a whiteboard sitting down!
- Walk over to a colleague instead of emailing or calling.
- Take a walk on your lunch break. (Is it cold outside? Wear a coat. Are you wearing uncomfortable shoes? Bring a comfortable pair to change into.)
- Suggest a “walk and talk” meeting with colleagues.
- Get a standing desk!
If your office culture isn’t very standing/walking/stretching-friendly, instead of feeling weird about it and avoiding moving around as much as you know you should, try to find reasonable ways to encourage others to join you: invite coworkers to take a walk with you at lunch, share a scientific article about the hazards of sitting too much (The Tina Times is moderately legit), or introduce some hard-to-resist desk yoga.
A note on second-hand sitting: Although you’re not going to suffer directly because someone else decides to sit near you, it does have some effect. If the people you’re with are sitting, you’re more likely to sit too. Try to encourage activities that promote moving around. Because we sit so much at work, it’s also important to reduce the time we spend sitting during our free time.
Tips for moving more in daily life:
- Take the stairs.
- Talk on the phone while standing or walking.
- Walk when you can instead of driving–carrying a bag of groceries back from the store is not going to kill you (in fact, it’s good for you).
- Stand on the bus or train instead of sitting.
- Build walking into social time–invite friends to join you for a walk, a hike, or, when possible, suggest you walk to dinner/the bar instead of driving.
- Get a dog. (Okay, this may not be feasible or desirable for everyone, but dog owners tend to log more steps per day than they would without the dog.)
- While watching TV, get up and move around during commercial breaks.
- Monitor your daily steps via a pedometer. Research shows that you should be getting 10,000 steps a day–check out these tips for actually getting that many.
And one more thing: Turn off the TV. Watching TV only builds upon the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle, and watching three hours of TV a day doubles a person’s risk of dying prematurely of any cause. Instead, turn those extra TV hours into physically healthy (and mentally beneficial!) activities like moving around, making stuff, or healthy cooking.Learn more: Sit Less, Live Longer? (New York Times) Sitting for More Than Three Hours a Day Cuts Life Expectancy (Wall Street Journal) Sitting Is the New Smoking (Wired)