Increase Your Life Expectancy by Sitting Less Than Three Hours a Day

Sitting Less

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sitting for more than three hours a day causes 3.8 percent of all-cause deaths in the 54 countries surveyed
  • Cutting your sitting time to less than three hours a day could increase your life expectancy by 0.2 years
  • More than 60 percent of people globally spend more than three hours a day sitting

By Dr. Mercola

You may have heard talk that too much sitting is bad for your health, but these effects are not simply hearsay. Mounting research confirms that in order to stay optimally healthy, your body needs to spend the bulk of its time doing what it was designed to do: move.

Sit less and move more. It's a simple strategy that can do wonders for your health. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, sitting for more than three hours a day causes 3.8 percent of all-cause deaths in the 54 countries surveyed.1

Further, cutting your sitting time to less than three hours a day could increase your life expectancy by 0.2 years, the researchers concluded. More than 60 percent of people globally spend more than three hours a day sitting.2 The researchers explained:3

"Assuming that the effect of sitting time on all-cause mortality risk is independent of physical activity, reducing sitting time plays an important role in active lifestyle promotion, which is an important aspect of premature mortality prevention worldwide."

Even Minor Reductions in Sitting Time May Benefit Your Health

If you currently sit for 10 or more hours a day, reducing your sitting time to three hours or less may sound overwhelming. However, you can start small.

The researchers found that reducing sitting time by 50 percent would result in a 2.3 percent decline in all-cause mortality (this was based on a mean sitting time of 4.7 hours a day).

Lead researcher Leandro Rezende, department of Preventive Medicine, University of Sao Paulo School of Medicine, told EurekAlert4

"It was observed that even modest reductions, such as a 10 percent reduction in the mean sitting time or a 30-minute absolute decrease of sitting time per day, could have an instant impact in all-cause mortality in the 54 evaluated countries …

… [W]hereas bolder changes (for instance, 50 percent decrease or two hours fewer) would represent at least three times fewer deaths versus the 10 percent or 30-minute reduction scenarios."

Australia Adopts Sedentary Behavior Guidelines

If you exercise for 30 minutes then spend the majority of your non-exercise hours sitting, well, it's the equivalent of popping a multivitamin and then eating French fries and ice cream for the rest of the day.

It's simply not enough activity to counteract all that sitting (and most people don't even exercise for 30 minutes daily).

Australia is the first country to adopt not only physical activity guidelines, but also sedentary behavior guidelines, which advise minimizing the amount of time spent in prolonged sitting, as well as breaking up long periods of sitting as often as possible.5

Other countries, like Colombia, are also being proactive about getting people up and moving; the country's government computers actually pause automatically in order to force employees to take regular (hopefully active) breaks.6

The World Health Organization (WHO) also states physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for premature death worldwide.7 Aside from premature death, sitting is also linked with a number of chronic diseases.

One meta-analysis of 42 studies assessing sedentary behavior in adults found prolonged sedentary time (generally defined as sitting for eight hours or more each day) was associated with a number of health risks regardless of physical activity. This included:8

  • All-cause mortality
  • Cardiovascular disease mortality
  • Cancer mortality
  • Cancer incidence
  • Type 2 diabetes incidence

" … [A] compelling body of evidence [suggests] that the chronic, unbroken periods of muscular unloading associated with prolonged sedentary time may have deleterious biological consequences," researchers further noted in the journal Exercise and Sports Sciences Review.9

Targeting Sitting Time Directly May Help You Move More

Once you recognize the health risks posed by excessive sitting, the next step becomes how to change this unhealthy behavior. The first step to changing your behavior is recognizing there's a problem.

Toward this end, experts recommend monitoring your sitting time, because once you know how long you spend sitting you can take steps to reduce it. A study published in the journal Health Psychology Review looked into which behavior change strategies work best to reduce sedentary behavior.10

In this case sedentary behavior was defined as "low energy-expending waking behavior while seated or lying down" (this doesn't include sleeping). The study reviewed 38 different interventions of which 23 were found to be effective in reducing sedentary behavior. The most effective techniques included those that targeted sitting time directly, such as:11

  • Access to a sit-stand desk at work
  • Tracking how long you've spent sitting
  • Setting goals to limit your sitting time
  • Using reminders to stop sitting
  • Educating people on the health benefits of less sitting

A Sit-Stand Desk Could Reduce Your Sitting Time by Eight Hours a Week

Research by Dr. James Levine and colleagues showed that the installation of sit-stand desks reduced sitting time during a 40-hour workweek by eight hours and reduced sedentary time by 3.2 hours.

Further, the participants enjoyed having the option of a sit-stand desk, which was also associated with increased sense of well-being and energy and decreased fatigue while having no impact on productivity.12 Better still, the more you stand up and move around, the more active you'll tend to be and the more benefits you'll experience. According to Levine:13

"The impact of movement — even leisurely movement — can be profound. For starters, you'll burn more calories. This might lead to weight loss and increased energy.

Even better, the muscle activity needed for standing and other movement seems to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body. When you sit, these processes stall — and your health risks increase. When you're standing or actively moving, you kick the processes back into action."

The Solution: Less Sitting and More Moving

The solution isn't simply to swap sitting for standing, as staying too long in any one position can potentially lead to problems. For instance, too much standing can lead to back pain, varicose veins and even worsening of conditions like heart disease and arthritis. Ideally, strive for a balance between sitting, standing and moving. According to Dr. Levine:14

"The solution seems to be less sitting and more moving overall. You might start by simply standing rather than sitting whenever you have the chance or think about ways to walk while you work. For example:

Stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch.

If you work at a desk for long periods of time, try a standing desk — or improvise with a high table or counter.

Walk laps with your colleagues rather than gathering in a conference room for meetings."

Another simple way to achieve this is to monitor not only your sitting time but also the number of steps you take each day. There are more than 300 peer-reviewed research studies looking into the health effects of taking 10,000 daily steps.15 Among them are studies showing this simple intervention may lead to weight loss16 and lower blood pressure.17

According to the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS), the average person only walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps per day.18 When you walk 10,000 steps a day, it helps you to get up out of your chair and moving. I personally walk about two hours a day or about 55 miles per week. I also keep my sitting to a minimum (about three hours a day) and do some form of "exercise" every day as well.

Balance Is Key

As mentioned, it's balance that is important, and you want a mix of sitting (minimal), standing and moving (including both exercise and non-exercise activity) each day.

I recommend using a pedometer or one of the newer wearable fitness trackers, to find out how far you normally walk and adjusting your movement as necessary to get close to 10,000 steps daily. This is only a guide; if you're elderly, you might aim for a bit less. If you're young and fit, you might need more.

Also remember that simple changes throughout your day can quickly add up to less time spent sitting and more time moving. Walk while you're talking on the phone, stand up while you watch television (or do a few jumping jacks or burpees during the commercials), park in the outskirts of the parking lot and take the stairs whenever you can. Walk to talk to your coworkers and neighbors (instead of emailing or calling)

Even small movements such as fidgeting may help. Among women who reported sitting for seven hours or more a day and hardly fidgeting, the risk of all-cause mortality increased by 30 percent. But women who reported fidgeting often fared far better — after sitting for five to six hours a day, their risk of mortality decreased.19

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