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Why Sitting Is Bad for You – 6 Tips to Move More & Improve Health


Think about how much time you spend each day sitting down. You may sit down throughout the entire working day at a desk in front of a computer. You sit during your commute to and from work. And you sit when you’re watching TV in the evening, or surfing the web.

ABC News reports that many of us spend up to 15 and a half hours sitting down every day. Furthermore, research suggests that even if you exercise regularly, this much sitting could have a major impact on your health.

In a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researcher Elin Ekblom-Bak found that prolonged bouts of sitting are strongly associated with obesity, abnormal metabolism, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and an increased risk of early mortality. And these risks do not decrease, even if you exercise daily. Simply put, even if you get up and run for an hour each morning, and then you sit at a desk at work for the next 10 hours, and then sit in front of the TV for another 3 hours, you’re just as much at risk for developing these conditions as someone who didn’t exercise at all.

Another study, conducted by Dr. Rikke Krogh-Madsen with the Centre of Inflammation and Metabolism in Copenhagen, and quoted in Inc. Magazine, found that healthy individuals who were forced to reduce their daily steps from 6,000 to 10,000 steps down to just 2,000 steps had a 60% increase of insulin in their blood in just two weeks. Higher insulin in the blood leads to an increased risk of cancer and obesity. They also gained an average of 7% abdominal fat. Again, these changes occurred within two weeks of increased sitting. Our bodies simply aren’t designed to sit all day.

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Why Sitting Is Harmful

Your body goes through certain physiological changes when it’s not being used. For instance, when the bigger muscles in the lower half of your body aren’t working, the inactivity sends a signal to your brain that changes your metabolism. These changes cause an increase in your blood sugar levels, and a 90% decrease in the amount of stored fat that’s used as fuel in your body. This, in turn,  has a number of ill effects, from obesity to an increased risk of cancer later in life.

Sitting also causes the electrical activity in your muscles to slow down: When seated, your body only burns one calorie per minute. This is merely one-third of what it burns when walking.

Why Sitting HarmfulHow to Sit Less & Stay Active

I should stress again that even if you exercise every day, you’re still doing damage to your health by sitting for 10 or more hours a day, as prolonged sitting is harmful regardless. The good news is that reducing your sitting time is relatively easy to do – it just takes some changes in your routine, especially when you’re at work.

1. Use a Standing Desk
A standing desk is exactly what it sounds like: a desk that’s situated at a height comfortable for you to use while standing. It’s a simple concept, and many people are making the switch to standing desks. Not only do these desks help you stay focused (it’s harder to slump over and zone out when you’re standing), they also enable you to burn calories when normally you’d be sitting sedentary.

You don’t have to go out and invest in a standing desk, as IKEA sells several models of cheap desks that can easily be adjusted to standing heights. There are also some unique ideas that show you how to modify your current desk to standing height. For instance, you could raise your desk by putting crates or sturdy boxes beneath each of the legs.

Keep in mind that these ideas work best at home. You could ask your boss if he or she would reimburse you for a standing desk, especially if you explain that you’ll likely be more productive as a result.

You could also consider using an exercise ball chair instead of a regular chair. Exercise balls – or “stability balls” – force you to make tiny movements throughout the day to keep your balance. Although you’re still technically sitting, doctors call it “active sitting,” since you’re regularly moving. I use an exercise ball myself and love it; my core and back have gotten very strong, and moving and bouncing all day helps me keep focused and energized.

2. Drink From Small Cups
You need to get up more frequently at the office if you use a small cup for coffee or water. I use this trick myself during the workday, as I find having to get up often to refill my water just means I’m moving more than I would if I were using a large mug.

3. Take Movement Breaks
Make it a goal to get up from  your desk and move every 15 to 20 minutes, or for 5 to 10 minutes every hour. It can be useful to use a timer to help you remember to move. Walk around your office when you’re on the phone, walk down the hall to ask your colleague a question instead of using IM, or just do some stretches. These are all easy ways to sneak a workout into your day. You can also do yourself a favor by not eating lunch at your desk, and then taking a walk immediately afterward.

4. Stand Up in Meetings
If you’re in a management or leadership role, encourage your team to stand instead of sitting during meetings. Not only will the meeting likely be shorter, all of you will move more during the day as a result. Better yet, hold a walking meeting outside. If you’re not in a position to conduct a standing meeting, ask your boss if he or she would consider conducting standing meetings more often.

Conducting Standing Meetings

5. Stop Watching TV
The amount of time Americans spend watching TV every day continues to increase – more than five hours per day on average. One of the best things you can do for your body (and your wallet), is to stop watching TV. Instead, use that time to move. Clean your house, play with your kids, or take your dog for a walk. There are endless things you can do that are far healthier than sitting on the couch.

When you do watch TV, make an effort to get up and move during commercial breaks. Stretch, do some squats, or walk up and down the stairs. These small movements might not seem like they make much of a difference, but they really do. It’s not how long you move during these breaks, or even how you move – it’s how often you move that counts.

6. Avoid Convenience
It is largely our society’s love affair with convenience that has gotten us into this mess. We’re moving far less than we used to even 50 years ago. You can easily work more movement into your day by avoiding technological conveniences  and doing things the old-fashioned way.

For instance, don’t use instant messenger to talk to colleagues – walk over to their desk if need be. Skip the elevator and take the stairs. Don’t roll on your chair to grab a file – get up and walk over. If you commute by bus or train to work, get off a stop early and walk the rest of the way.

Other changes at home can help you move more. For instance, don’t use a water hose to “sweep” your driveway. Instead, use a broom. Instead of piling your arms full of things to take upstairs, take one item at a time. Even better, save these chores to “interrupt” your TV time in the evenings.

Final Word

Many people can’t avoid sitting for the majority of the day. However, you can improve your health by moving more at regular intervals.

Keep in mind that if you’re not doing any exercise at all, adopting a standing desk right away won’t be the best idea. This is because your body isn’t used to moving or standing all day, and you’d likely experience fatigue or discomfort by making such a dramatic change so quickly.

Instead, start small and slowly work your way up to more movement. And remember, moving more during the day is definitely worth the effort. WebMD cites a study that followed Australians’ habits for six years. Researchers found that those who watched more than four hours of TV per day were 80% more likely to die of heart disease than those who watched less than two hours per day. One of the best things you can do for your health is turn off the TV, and move more.

What do you during the day to break up your sitting?

Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.