Health & Fitness

Are you sitting down? It could be the most dangerous thing you do all day

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, occupational, environmental and technological advances have resulted in a workforce that is chair based.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, occupational, environmental and technological advances have resulted in a workforce that is chair based. Getty Images

By now you’ve probably heard that phrase that sitting is the new smoking. Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the treadmill desk, is credited with coining the phrase.

We asked Tammy Bennett, director of Healthy Living at the Whatcom Family YMCA, about it:

Question: Sitting is said to be the new smoking. Do you agree with that?

Answer: Yes, I do, with all my heart.

Q: Why?

A: According to the American College of Sports Medicine, occupational, environmental and technological advances have resulted in a workforce that is “chair based.” You can do all kinds of things without ever having to get up.

You can shop, communicate with friends and family, do your banking, pay your bills, plan your trips ... all from a seated position (and let’s be honest, often from a seated position with hunched-over, poor posture, but don’t get me started on that).

And, our kids? We may be challenging their minds with technology, but we’re not doing them any physical favors. It is estimated that one out of three of our children will have diabetes, and that this is the first generation slated to have a shorted lifespan than their folks.

Maybe we could begin to flip that if we decrease their screen time and increase their feet time.

Q: What are the impact/consequences of prolonged sitting?

A: Higher risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease, negative metabolic issues that cause struggles with weight and disease processes associated with obesity, low back problems, posture issues that can lead to chronic pain, weak muscles and bones.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Your body is built to move, and being sedentary is not normal or healthy for it.

I like to teach my students the word “sarcopenia,” which is a fancy way of saying muscle wasting. Once that is happening, you will lose strength, mobility and bone mass. Additionally, as your health and quality of life go down, your medical bills go up. We also know that physical activity has a positive impact on mood and mental health.

Q: How do you define prolonged sitting?

A: Also according to American College of Sports Medicine, recent research suggests adults spend more than eight hours of their day being sedentary. We know that 69 percent of Americans do not meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity, and that even people who are meeting the activity guidelines may spend the remainder of their day being sedentary.

As far as what chunk of time do we want you to get up and get moving? Taking a one- to three-minute standing break every half hour makes good sense. I like the term fragmented sitting, because it makes it sound more fun.

Q: How often should a person who has a sedentary job get up and move about and for how long?

A: I do think it’s important to note that people who work out daily can also be too sedentary and can also suffer from some risks of extended periods of sitting.

Let’s say someone goes to their gym in the morning and gets the recommended amount of activity in for the day. Double thumbs up for that. But then let’s say they go to work at a sedentary job and a working lunch so the next nine or 10 hours are seated. Maybe after a few home chores, the evening is spent watching TV, reading or on the computer. Double thumbs down to that.

There needs to be bits of movement all day long to combat some of the negative effects of extended periods of sitting. We are learning that getting on your feet on a regular basis, throughout the day, is just as important as that visit to the gym.

Q: If you have a sedentary job that requires you sit all day, what can you do to combat the impact sitting has on the heart, lungs, etc.?

A: Two words: Get up.

Recall those magazine lists of things you could do to control your weight like parking farther away, using the stairs instead of the elevator, getting up to talk to a co-worker instead of texting or calling them, as well as new ideas like having a standing desk or at least one where you have a choice to sit or stand.

Other tricks including drinking a lot of water (that’s going to force you to get up at frequent intervals), setting a timer to remind you to get out of your chair, or using an activity tracker to challenge yourself to increased steps.

Q: What specific type of exercise do you recommend and for how long?

A: American College of Sports Medicine’s physical activity recommendations for healthy adults recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity five days a week, or 20 minutes of more vigorous activity three days per week.

Strength training a minimum two days a week doing eight to 12 repetitions of eight to 10 different exercises is also recommended. This can be done with body weight, resistance bands, free weights, medicine balls, or resistance machines.

Remember, this exercise recommendation does not make up for prolonged sitting. Getting out of your chair is just as important as meeting these guidelines.

Q: What did we miss?

A: I always share the NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) principle. Basically NEAT is a fancy way of saying moving more.

One way to envision it is trying to make yourself physically inefficient. Take more trips to the car to bring groceries in. Walk your dog a little farther than you have to for bathroom break. Play with your kids instead of watching them play. Do chores yourself instead of farming them out to others-things like setting the table, taking the garbage out, vacuuming, gardening, cleaning etc.

Of course you can spread the joy and do it as a team, but all those things add up to less sitting and more moving, which may lead to improved physical and mental health.