Research continues to mount and it’s not good for office workers or people who have sedentary lives: Too much sitting is as bad as smoking, and it’s taking years off of your life.
It’s long been thought that 30 minutes of daily exercise was sufficient to maintain cardiovascular health, but studies show it isn’t enough to counteract hours in front of a computer or TV screen.
There’s no end to the studies that link the power of regular physical exercise—regular meaning throughout the day—to maintaining health, weight and a general sense of well-being. Conversely, more time spent sitting increases the risk for developing dozens of chronic conditions, from cancer and diabetes to cardiovascular disease, circulation problems, obesity and greater total mortality.
Too much standing also can have negative health consequences, so the goal is to break up activity throughout the day.
“People who move a lot more in their day-to-day activities have better cardiac function and have lower risk of disease,” says Dr. Ambarish Pandey, a cardiology fellow at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who conducts research on exercise and heart health.
The Impact of Inactivity
According to doctors and researchers, sitting itself is not the lone culprit. It’s the biological and metabolic processes that happen in the body. Prolonged time spent sitting, independent of how much other physical activity is done during the day, has been show to negatively impact things such as blood fats, cholesterol, blood sugar, resting blood pressure and the appetite hormone leptin.
“Humans are meant to move; the body is supposed to give the brain a great ride every day,” says Dr. Scott Bautch, chairman of the American Chiropractic Association’s Council on Occupational Health.
“We have high motion parameters, so when we don’t move it throws a lot of things off. We’ve become so sedentary that by the age of 14, kids have the same rate of back pain as adults, and by age 14, 7 percent of children have back pain that affects their daily living.”
Not only does too much sitting lead to postural changes, degenerative arthritis and joint problems, but it also slows down circulation, digestion and heart function. Standing activates muscles so excess amounts of blood glucose don’t hang around in the bloodstream and are instead absorbed in the muscles.
Other studies have correlated work-related stress with faster biological aging and heart disease, making it even more important to get the heart and blood pumping. Exercise also moves stress hormones like cortisol out of the bloodstream quicker, Bautch says.
Swelling, or even an indentation from your socks on your legs, is another sign the body is starting to struggle to get blood back to the heart.
“The heart has to work a lot harder when you’re not moving,” Bautch says. “Movement aids our cardiovascular system, blood supply, lymph system; circulation through all our major organs is not as effective when we’re sitting.”
Get with the Guidelines
Research Pandey has been involved with at University of Texas suggests people should exercise for closer to two hours per day—or break it up throughout the day—to decrease risk of heart failure. The U.S. minimum recommended levels of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week triggered only mild physical reactions in participants’ bodies. People who did two to four times more exercise lowered their risk of heart failure by 20 percent and 35 percent, respectively, the researchers found.
Coronary disease risks have dropped significantly in recent years, but heart failure risks are still high as 5.1 million people in the United States suffer from it. Heart failure is an ongoing condition that gets worse over time. The heart doesn’t pump blood to the rest of body like it should, resulting in shortness of breath, water retention and swelling, fatigue and an enlarged heart.
“There’s a lot of interest to find out and understand better how exercise and physical activity can decrease these heart conditions,” Pandey says. “Thirty minutes of exercise helps in a modest amount, but you probably need four times the activity than what the guidelines recommend.”
Still, people shouldn’t be discouraged by the study results if they are time-strapped. The goal is to get up and move. Exercise is cheap and doesn’t have any side effects and the benefits are as good as medicine, Pandey says.
“It’s important for people to realize any activity is better than no activity,” he says. “If they can’t get 30 minutes, try to get as much as they can and as often as they can. The benefits of small bouts of activity add up.”
Contrary to popular belief, movement is also the best medicine for pain and joint stiffness, Bautch says. “We have 100 million people disabled by pain parameters in this country who use 80 percent of the world’s painkillers,” he says. “One of the best things to relieve pain is motion. Non-activity costs this country huge amounts of money in disability, pain and depression.”
Bautch, who does occupational health consulting and gives presentations on the topic, says the best work environments encourage two hours of movement throughout the day. Workers are more engaged and get more done in six hours if they are given small breaks than over eight hours tied to a desk.
“When we have friendly environments and people can move and socialize, those are the best companies with the most productive employees,” he says.
Bautch recommends using an exercise ball at work or at least sitting on one at home, rather than spending the evening on the couch.
“If you sit for six to eight hours and come home and watch six hours of TV, that’s an enormously destructive amount of sitting,” he says. “Put some headsets on and walk around; it’s really important when you get home.”
Jump on a trampoline while watching TV or get up and do laundry, dishes or yard work. Short bouts of burst training for 20 minutes are as effective as longer cardio sessions. Or go for a few 10-minute walks throughout the day or park as far away from work or stores and walk. Every little bit of activity helps, he says.