By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Are you sitting comfortably? Then get up right now!
The dangers of leading a sedentary lifestyle are real – and you could be storing up for a health disaster if you spend more time on your butt than on your feet.
There’s no denying that sitting down and relaxing feels good. Often it is necessary to help you recharge after a tough day or an intense workout.
But when you’re inactive most of the time – behind the computer screen, watching TV, in the car – this sedentary lifestyle, also catchily called “sitting disease” will ultimately harm you.
In 2002 the World Health Organization issued a warning that “a sedentary lifestyle could very well be among the 10 leading causes of death and disability in the world” with around 2 million deaths per year – in both the developing and developed world – attributed to physical inactivity.
Being sedentary doesn’t just mean not going to the gym or doing any exercise, it is actually a distinct type of behavior where inactivity outweighs activity in all areas of life.
Many people who are sedentary don't know that they are. But here's the test. If you spend most of your time sitting down, then you’re sedentary. Find out why this matters to your health, and what you can do about it.
Why Are We So Sedentary?
Life has changed. Nowadays life is linked to the internet, TV, and cars. Consider what you do now online or from your desk that you would have had to get up and do before – online shopping, paying bills, emailing people, and internet research, for example.
Then consider how much of your working life is spent sitting behind a desk, and how much of your leisure time in front of the TV or computer.
In 1970, 2 out of 10 working Americans sat behind a desk and 3 in 10 had jobs requiring high activity levels like manufacturing or farming.
In 2000, over 4 in 10 adults had desk jobs and only 2 in 10 needed to exert energy in their work, according to 2005 research from Saint Louis University School of Public Health.
Between 1989 and 2009, the number of households with a computer attached to the Internet increased from 15 percent to 69 percent, according to the US Census Bureau Internet Use in the United States: October 2009.
We now spend an average of 4 hours a day watching TV, says the Nielsen Company Three Screen Report (2010).
But why is this so bad?
What Are the Risks of the “Sitting Disease”?
A sedentary lifestyle raises the risk of all kinds of serious health conditions, according to experts, from cardiovascular disease to cancer, high blood pressure to osteoporosis. Being sedentary increases the risk of breast and colon cancer. It puts you at greater risk of diabetes. You are more at risk of a heart attack.
A sedentary lifestyle leads to the loss of muscle tissue, which makes daily tasks harder and it is more difficult to keep at a healthy weight.
It gets worse. Lack of physical activity actually causes brain power to decline, too.
A 2015 study from Toronto Rehabilitation Institute-University Health Network found sedentary behavior in adults was linked to a greater risk of death from heart disease and cancer, and a greater risk of diabetes – and that was regardless of whether the individuals took part in regular exercise or not. But the worst effects were on those people who exercised very little or not at all.
If You’re Sedentary You Have a Higher Cardiovascular Risk
A sedentary lifestyle raises the risk of markers of heart disease – problematic conditions that put an individual at greater risk of cardiovascular problems. A 2014 study from the Unidad de Prevención Cardiovascular, Instituto Aragonés de Ciencias de la Salud (I+CS), Zaragoza, Spain found that workers who spent more time sitting down in the day had a worse inflammatory and insulin resistance profile than those who did not sit, regardless of whether they worked out at the gym or not.
The most sedentary of the people in the study had the highest body mass index, the biggest waist circumference, and the highest blood pressure – all these all also cardiovascular disease indicators.
Muscle Strength Fades After Just Two Weeks of Inactivity
Sitting down makes you weaker, very fast.
A study in 2015 from the Center for Healthy Aging and the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark demonstrates that just two weeks of physical inactivity is enough for young, physically fit individuals to lose 30 percent of their muscle strength.
In fact, the more muscle a person has, the more they will lose when they start being sedentary whether that is through choice or injury or illness.
What’s even more worrying is the time it takes to get that muscle mass back – three times longer than the time you were inactive.
Sedentary Behavior Makes You More Anxious
While sedentary behavior can obviously be linked to physical problems, did you know that sitting down for long periods of time can also bring an increased risk of anxiety?
A 2015 study from the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research (C-PAN) at Deakin University, Australia examined five other studies and found that an increase in being sedentary was associated with an increased risk of anxiety. In one of these studies, statistics show that 36 percent of students who have more than two hours of screen time a day were more likely to develop anxiety than students with less than two hours.
Sedentary Behavior – Even If You Exercise – Harms Your Brain
Plus, lots of time spent sedentary is associated with a lower structural integrity in nerve fibers in the brain. It's long been known that, in older adults, exercise helps reduce levels of cognitive decline, according to experts.
But 2014 research from the University of Illinois shows that when older adults lead a generally sedentary lifestyle, it doesn’t matter how much they work out – sedentary behavior harms the brain.
Adults who spent the most time sitting or sedentary, even when they engaged in regular light physical activity, had lower structural integrity in the area of the brain related to memory and learning.
It's worth emphasizing --- being non-sedentary does not equal engaging in sports. Being non-sedentary does not equal going to the gym. Being non-sedentary equals not sitting.
Sedentary Lifestyles Reduce Sperm Count
Male couch potatoes take note. A 2013 study from the Harvard School of Public Health shows how a sedentary lifestyle can reduce sperm quantity. In a survey of 183 young men, those who lived sedentary lifestyles and watched more than 20 hours of TV a week had nearly half the sperm count of men who didn’t watch much TV.
Sedentary People Age More Quickly
If you are physically active in your spare time you are likely to age more slowly than if you are sedentary, according to a 2008 study from King's College London.
Researchers looked at twins and found that "inactivity may diminish life expectancy not only by predisposing to aging-related diseases but also because it may influence the aging process itself. A sedentary lifestyle (in addition to smoking, high body mass index, and low socioeconomic status) …. may accelerate the aging process."
It turns out, according to the researchers, that adults who are active are actually biologically younger than sedentary adults.
All these studies show that it doesn’t really matter if you work out at the gym 30 minutes a day (although this helps, and should be encouraged) if you spend the remaining 23.5 hours sitting down or sleeping.Try to be more active in all aspects of your life.
Tips to Increase the Amount of Time You Stand
Take a few minutes break every half hour to move around the office.
1. Put your laptop on the kitchen counter or on a bar table or fireplace mantle for a part of the day. If you work in an office, elevate your laptop with books or a standing desk;
2. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator whenever you can.
3. Stretch your legs every hour, even if you do sit while surfing on the computer. If you only increase the amount you stand for 10 minutes of the 12 hours you are awake ( and not eating) during the day, you will add 120 minutes of standing. That's 2 full extra hours you add just by getting up for 10 minutes each hour.
4. Put the TV remote next to the TV itself, so you have to get up to change channels.
5. Stand up to make telephone calls or to text on your phone.
6. Go to a colleague’s desk rather than emailing.
7. Or invest in a standing desk.
Don’t fast-forward the adverts during your favorite show – use this time to move around.
Or only allow yourself to watch TV if you are cycling on a stationary bike, or tidying up – keeping moving in all areas of life will make it less likely you’ll encounter heart disease, cancer, or a host of other health conditions further down the line.