Too Much Sitting Is Killing Us

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sittingStudies say that even moderate to vigorous exercise doesn’t counteract the damage.

A study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation showed that each extra hour of television watching (the ultimate sitting sedentary activity) per day was associated with an 18% increase in deaths from heart disease and an 11% increase in overall mortality. People who watched TV for at least four hours a day were 80% more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those who watched two hours or less, and 46% more likely to die of any cause.

We have smart readers, and many of you will immediately ask: “Weren’t there other factors, not just sitting, that resulted in this outcome?” Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. There are specific reasons why sitting, in itself, appears to be dangerous. The message seems to be to move around. But if you aren’t moving around, stand or lie down, which humans have done throughout their history. Avoid sitting in a chair, an activity that is relatively new for human beings and not at all good for us.

Surprising as it is, the increase in heart and mortality risk observed in the Circulation study affected people who met exercise guidelines—and were independent of eating habits as well! Studies reported significant associations between total sedentary time with blood glucose, blood lipids, and adiposity, even in people who performed moderate to vigorous exercise several times each week.

Animal studies also show that how much time we are sedentary is related to how well our bodies process fats. The studies in rats show that leg muscles only produce the lipase lipoprotein (fat-processing) molecule when they are being actively flexed—that is, when standing or, better still, walking around—and low levels of the molecule are associated with health problems, including heart disease. In short, sitting makes this important molecule slow down. In fact, actively contracting the muscles produces a whole suite of substances that have a beneficial effect on how the body uses and stores sugars and fats.

“Many people, on a daily basis, simply shift from one chair to another—from the seat in the car to the chair in the office to the chair in front of the television,” said to the lead author of the study. “Even if someone has a healthy body weight, sitting for long periods still has an unhealthy influence on blood sugar and blood fats.”

It should be noted that sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little. They do completely different things to the body. Standing recruits specialized muscles designed for low-intensity activity—muscles that are very rich in enzymes. The lipoprotein lipase enzyme  grabs fat and cholesterol from the blood, burning the fat into energy while shifting the cholesterol from LDL (the bad kind) to HDL (the healthy kind). When you sit, the muscles are relaxed, and enzyme activity drops by 90% to 95%, leaving fat to camp out in the bloodstream. Within a couple hours of sitting, healthy cholesterol plummets by 20%.

A Canadian study reached a similar conclusion. After adjusting for potential compounding factors (smoking, exercise levels, etc.), the study found that the longer people sat, the higher the risk of mortality from all causes except cancer.

The good news is that inserting breaks into your sedentary periods can help. Periodically taking time out from your computer, desk, television, and driving time to walk, move around, stretch, and flex your muscles, is good for you. These spurts of activity are associated with a smaller waist circumference, lower body mass index, and lower blood lipid levels, and better glucose metabolism.

A stand up desk might be a good idea as well. Don’t have room for one? Too expensive? Then pile some books or something else on top of your existing desk and put your laptop where you can type standing up when you want to, either often or as a break.

At ANH-USA, we believe that true health comes from a combination of diet (and supplements), exercise, and lifestyle. Politically, so much is happening regarding supplements and diet that we spend most of our newsletter space focusing on those areas. But science tells us that our lifestyle choices—simple decisions made daily—can make a huge impact on our health, for good or for ill.

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  • Donna

    When I was young I was chastised for not being able to sit still. Now I’m trying to get back to that.

    • kyhamoge

      Haha…yes, we were only doing what comes naturally. The human body was designed to move! EVERYBODY in America is too sedentary – beginning with young children — as evidenced by the steady rise in childhood obesity & type 2 diabetes. Common sense SHOULD be our guide – not some bureaucratic agency.

    • Bill

      Hmmm…so now you’d like to be chastised more?? 😉

  • mary

    Good to know!

  • An interesting article, the power of regular exercise need never be under estimated, combined with with deep breathing can work wonders for overall health.

  • Carolyn Reed

    This is one of the most discouraging articles I have ever read. In fact, downright depressing. The article has a doom and gloom tone as if it is too late to make changes. If moderate or vigorous exercise doesn’t counteract the damage, then what good is standing this late into the damage? Please do not send me anything else like this.

    • Hi Carolyn, thanks for your comment. We bring you this news because we want to help people avoid making health and lifestyle mistakes! Although the studies found that exercise doesn’t counteract the damage from sitting for long periods of time, sitting less does! What this means is you can’t sit at your desk for 8 hours and then expect your 90 minutes at the gym after work to counteract the ill effects of sitting, but you CAN improve the situation by getting up from your desk periodically throughout the day so that you aren’t sitting for so long uninterrupted.

    • I agree!
      PLUS I do not support any wbesite that encourages animal research and testing!!!!!!!

      • Bill

        Reporting the results of someone’s research does not equate to “encouraging animal research and testing”. Besides, do you know how the animals were treated in these studies?

  • voxpop

    i’m 80 years and haven’t exercised since i left the navy at age 22,,,this is just more fear tactics!!

  • Duke

    I am curious about the rat study. Was there a control group of rats observed sitting in chairs?

    • Bill

      What a silly question. The control group was the rats on bicycles.

  • Thanks for this important info.

  • Crystal

    Wait a minute. You lost me at “people who watched TV for at least 4 hours per day…were 46% more likely to die of any cause.” Huh?

    • MC

      Yes, aren’t we all at 100% risk of dying from any cause at some point?

      • The study only looked at one period of time, and did not follow all participants til they died. The group that did a lot of sitting were more likely to die of any cause during the study’s duration. More folks who watched 4+ hours a day of television died before the study ended than folks who watched two or less hours.

  • Pat

    What is a good rule of thumb for sitting and when do give yourself a break and move around, we all own cars and chairs so there probably is no way to avoid sitting, so what is a good guideline to go by? every 30 minutes for example?

    • MC

      My goal is to get up from my desk every hour. I use the kitchen and restroom facilities upstairs so I can jog up the stairs a few times a day to keep things circulating.

  • anita graham

    What about sitting cross-legged on the floor or a raised platform, such as padded low table? The only way I can sit is on the back of my butocks, monstrous pineapple sized hernia; this leaves legs sort of stretched out in front—I guess that doesn’t much help the problem of engaging leg muscles?? More suggestions would be welcome.

    • Bill

      How about one of those recliner type stationary bikes. I bet, after a while the “biking” action would be so automatic you’d hardly know you were doing it.

  • Thank you for this information. Now I understand, better, why sitting is so bad and why I have been struggling with belly fat! I often use a fitness ball as my desk chair, but only when my back is particularly bothering me. After reading this, I plan to get away from my desk for a few minutes every hour. I already take the stairs rather than the elevator, and walk to the bank and post office (a mere couple of blocks). Regardless of my exercise/diet changes (I am in my late 50s) I can’t budge the belly fat. I wonder if the fitness ball, and continual movement, would make the difference in my metabolism? Any educated thoughts on this?
    Thanks!

    • kyhamoge

      Lower you intake of carbohydrates – particularly simple sugars, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and starchy foods such as baked goods. I know that’s not something we (Americans) wish to hear, but it is the truth. Also, common sense should tell us — we were designed to move our bodies! Good Luck to you!

    • In many cases belly fat is caused by gluten intolerance. I could never get rid of my belly fat until I stopped consuming wheat, rye, barley and oats. I increased consumption of fats and proteins and began a regimen of two healthy start packs with two bottles of sweet-ez per month from youngevity. My belly is not only disappearing, My IBS I had lived with for over 40 years has cleared up.

  • Frank Lornitzo

    Are there any data related to laying position (Cleopatra) LOL when reading or resting instead of sitting?

  • David Irwin

    So is bike riding bad?

  • John

    Without picking on anyone in particular, I have to say I’m amazed at some of the comments posted. ANH is trying to provide us with helpful information so we can live healthier lives. If you have issues with this artcle, that’s fine, but I think ‘shooting the messenger’ is not helpful or productive. For what it’s worth, I have read several articles in recent years (from different sources) detailing studies that show sitting for long periods is bad for us, and the evidence is growing. As always, what you do with this information is up to you. (Please note that my comments are not directed at anyone who was seeking clarification or more information.)

    • Bill

      Amen and amen!! Thank you.

  • Alan Lowich

    This study sounds like the perfect commericial for Lazy Boy recliners, their sales should go through the roof. I watch three or fours of television every night but I do it on a reclining easy chair that leaves me stretched out on my back so am I avoiding the risk of sudden death by doing this?

    I also cycle 8000 to 10000 miles a year (200 rides per year) but I am sure that I am getting no help from this activity since I am seated on a bicycle seat.

  • Brodie

    “People who watched TV for at least four hours a day were 80% more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those who watched two hours or less, and 46% more likely to die of any cause.”

    I would have thought everyone was %100 more likely to die of any cause?

    • They were more likely to die of any cause, during the study duration. More folks who watched 4+ hours a day of television died before the study ended than folks who watched two or less hours.

      • Bill

        Did they take into account that watching that much television would probably kill you even if you exercised the whole time you watched??

  • Pat

    again sorry, since the people that wrote this article and people that run this site have cars and chairs (probably sat to write the article) this information is only good with guidelines, since most of us can’t walk to work and eat standing what are some good tips

    What is a good rule of thumb for sitting and when do give yourself a break and move around, there probably is no way to avoid sitting, so what is a good guideline to go by? every 30 minutes for example?

    • The study we link to didn’t specify any guidelines or timeframes, but they did find a continuous positive relationship: the more often you get up, the better the health outcomes. If you can get up from your desk once in 8 hours, you’re doing better than if you don’t get up at all. If you can get up every hour, that’s better, and if you can get up every 30 minutes, that’s even better!

  • Notalida

    “Avoid sitting in a chair.” Thanks, very helpful. What is it again that I should ask my boss to provide me at work? Articles like this cause more stress and heart disease than any chair.

  • Dan

    What do you expect from a society whose leaders and authorities systematically poison it’s own people by telling them to eat a diet of more than 50% carbohydrates. Carbs drive insulin, and insulin which trumphs all other hormones with regards to fat loss, drives fat accumulation. It has nothing to do with exercise and everything to do with the type of food you eat. Fat should be the fuel and protein the nourishment. Keep the carbs out of your diet and fatty acids can’t bind into tryglycerides, exercise has nothing to do with it. And the best fat comes from non meat sources, so quite whining about it and figure some high fat high protein dishes that appeal to the general population. And yes I can’t spell.

    • Bill

      The article talks about studies that show the muscles produce enzymes that control fats and here you come saying “exercise has nothing to do with it”. Forget spelling, can you read?

  • Becca

    I know that I’m having a lot of trouble walking because I’m sitting too long and too often because of digital photography, but also because I had fallen over a decade ago and severely injured my knee, then hip. Now I have a total hip and total knee replacement.

    Sitting too much is harmful to me and I realize it. I just did not want to exercise 6 hours a day like I was doing with physical and water therapy. With every new injury, there are more exercises, and I yearn to sit and just relax. But, again I know that I need to get back to the pool and the rehab weight room or I won’t be able to walk at all.

  • Fitzcarraldo

    I wonder if a study has been done of writers and academics who by the nature of their work, sit down all day long. Do writers generally have a short life? Do judges? Do academics?

    • Frederica Huxley

      Interesting question! The writers and academics I have known have all lived to well over 70.

  • Nelda Norton

    I for one, really wish I were able to get up and around enough to not sit so much. Between pain of Fibromyalgia, Arthritic knee and hip and back… it is all I can do some days to get up and out to take child to and from school. If I don’t sit in a rolling office chair I could not ever get the dishes washed. I try to get up several times a day… but walking is so difficult and COPD keep me from going very far. I would love any help you have to give me.