By Dr. Mercola
According to recent research, if Americans cut back on the amount of time spent sitting down, it could add years to their life expectancy.
Unfortunately, most people spend a large portion of each day in a seated position. It's hard to avoid these days, as computer work predominates, and most also spend many precious hours each week commuting to and from work.
Sitting Takes a Heavy Toll on Health
The study estimates that reducing the average time you spend sitting down to less than three hours a day could increase your life expectancy by two years.1 Reducing the time you spend watching TV to less than two hours a day could increase it by 1.4 years.
As reported by NBC News:2
"'The study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that sitting itself is deadly. While previous studies have looked at the health risks to the individual, the new study examines the risk of sitting for the whole population, said study researcher Peter Katzmarzyk, of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. The research 'elevates sedentary behavior as an important risk factor, similar to smoking and obesity,' Katzmarzyk said.
Other studies have found our culture of sitting may be responsible for about 173,000 cases of cancer each year.
Because U.S. adults spend, on average, between 4.5 and five hours a day sitting down, a significant shift in the population's behavior would be needed to have an effect on life expectancy, Katzmarzyk said. This might be achieved through changes at the workplace, such as the use of standing desks, and by watching less TV..."
A second study, published in the October issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine,3 which included nearly 12,000 Australian adults, concluded that each hour spent watching television after the age of 25 reduces your life expectancy by nearly 22 minutes. To put this into perspective, the authors compared it to smoking – each cigarette reduces your life expectancy by about 11 minutes. All in all, the researchers found that adults who spend an average of six hours in front of the TV will reduce their life expectancy by just under 5 years, compared to someone who does not watch TV.
Obesity Panacea4 made a good point in its report on this study:
"These sorts of theoretical studies obviously need to be taken with a large dollop of salt (just like the recent Australian study5 which estimated that every hour of TV viewing shortens your life by 25 minutes). The point is simply that there is a non-negligible impact of sitting/TV viewing on mortality, and given the extremely high prevalence of these behaviors at the population level, they can have noticeable impact on the lifespan of the population as a whole."
Inactivity is naturally associated with increased risk for poor health, which will likely impact your overall life span. A recent study published in Diabetologia,6 analyzed 18 studies that in total included nearly 800,000 people, and found that those who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least. And, while prolonged sitting was linked to an overall greater mortality risk from any cause, the strongest link was to death due to diabetes. According to lead researcher Thomas Yates, MD:7
"Even for people who are otherwise active, sitting for long stretches seems to be an independent risk factor for conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease."
How to Increase Activity Levels on the Job
While sitting down is not the only thing that can cause trouble (adopting any particular posture for long periods of time can slow down your circulatory system), sitting is one of the most pervasive postures in modern civilizations. So how can you increase your activity levels if you have a "desk job," as so many of us do these days?
One of the things I do to compensate for the time I spend sitting each day is to regularly do Foundation exercises developed by a brilliant chiropractor, Eric Goodman. These exercises are used by many professional and elite athletes, but more importantly can easily address the root cause of most low back pain, which is related to weakness and imbalance among your posterior chain of muscles. It is easily argued that these imbalances are primarily related to sitting. I have recently interviewed Dr. Goodman and he shares his comments on the featured report below.
Here are two video demonstrations: "The Founder," which helps reinforce proper movement while strengthening the entire back of your body, and "Adductor Assisted Back Extension," which will teach you how to properly extend your spine.
Powerful New Way to Compensate for Sitting – Foundation Training
I recently learned of Dr. Eric Goodman's work through his TED presentation and was excited about the simplicity and elegance of his approach to address this issue. Many elite and professional athletes are big fans of his work. I asked him to comment on this article and he wrote the following:
"Many lifestyles require that people sit very often. While this may not be ideal, it is certainly ok. No law of nature requires that our body begins to deteriorate as soon as you sit down; it's actually the simple repetition that gets you. Fortunately there is a lot you can do to help counterbalance this, starting today.
You have some important anatomy happening in and around your hips, pelvis, spine and stomach. Unfortunately, these are precisely the areas that get the worst of your weight when you sit all day. It is because of this that teaching your pelvis and spine to remain supported while we sit, and more importantly, while you stand, is of the utmost importance.
Think about it for a moment, we are all very muscular animals... well, at least we have the ability to be very muscular animals. If sitting all day teaches your back, butt and leg muscles that it is ok to remain squishy and act more as a cushion than a support structure, you should do exactly the opposite to counter it. You have to let your muscles feel what they have accidentally forgotten, the feeling of being used for their original purpose.
Stand up throughout the day to stretch your body appropriately, the way it is meant to be stretched. The simple act of standing as tall as possible for a minute or two will help break the pattern of sitting, as long as you repeat it frequently. Be sure that while standing you take full deep breaths to expand your torso as well. We often have very shallow breath while we sit, counter that with big deep breaths as often as you can throughout the day.
My opinion is that people should not go longer than 30 minutes in a chair without standing, deep breathing, walking and stretching. If you think I am crazy for asking that much of you, then I suggest you not go longer than 20 minutes.
Helpful Tips You Can Do Now:
- You will do less harm by sitting upright on the front edge of your chair. Back rests tend to promote excessive rounding of the spine, and tend to push people into what's called an anterior head carriage. The further forward your head goes the shorter your hip flexors will remain and that just leads to all sorts of movement problems.
- When sitting for a while try to keep your chest (sternum) in front of your chin. As soon as the head starts to fall forward you enter the compression and degeneration danger zone. Play around to see if you can feel a difference.
- Think of lengthening the distance between the rib cage and the pelvis when you stand. This will lengthen your hip flexors.
- If you have a life that keeps you sitting frequently, and you haven't tried Foundation Training yet, please do. Our work will likely help you. At least watch my TED talk and learn an important trick to counter balance the effects of sitting all day."
Regular Exercise May Not Be Enough to Compensate for Excessive Sitting...
I am a major proponent of exercise and believe it is absolutely essential if you are going to achieve any level of high-level health and wellness. Interestingly, previous research has suggested that even if you have a regular fitness regimen, it might not be enough to compensate for excessively sedentary behavior during the remaining hours of each day due to the adverse metabolic effects sitting down generates.
One 2009 study8 highlighted much of the recent evidence linking sitting with biomarkers of poor metabolic health, showing how total sitting time correlates with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other prevalent chronic health problems. According to the authors:
"Even if people meet the current recommendation of 30 minutes of physical activity on most days each week, there may be significant adverse metabolic and health effects from prolonged sitting – the activity that dominates most people's remaining 'non-exercise' waking hours."
In other words, even if you're fairly physically active, riding your bike to work or hitting the gym four or five days a week – you may still succumb to the effects of too much sitting if the majority of your day is spent behind a desk or on the couch. Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon the "active couch potato effect." That is one of the reasons that if you sit at least half as much as I do that you seriously consider using the exercises that Dr. Goodman demonstrates above. It could go a long way towards compensating for the damage you do be sitting.
The Price You Pay for a Sedentary Lifestyle
A number of studies have looked into the health ramifications of leading a sedentary lifestyle. The research linking too much sitting with increased risks of disease and premature death is quite eye-opening:
- Men who were sedentary for more than 23 hours a week had a 64 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than those who were sedentary less than 11 hours a week, according to a 2010 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.9
- A study of more than 17,000 Canadians10 found that the mortality risk from all causes was 1.54 times higher among people who spent most of their day sitting compared to those who sat infrequently.
- Sitting time is a predictor of weight gain, according to a study of Australian women,11 even after accounting for calories consumed and leisure time physical activity, such as exercise time.
- The risk of metabolic syndrome rises in a dose-dependent manner depending on your "screen time" (the amount of time you spend watching TV or using a computer). Physical activity had only a minimal impact on the relationship between screen time and metabolic syndrome.12
- People who use a computer for 11 hours or more a week, or watch TV for 21 hours or more a week, are more likely to be obese than those who use a computer or watch TV for 5 hours a week or less.13
Swap Sitting for Sleep to Improve Your Health?
In related news14, Dr Matthew Buman gave a recent talk at the International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health, which focused on a cross-sectional study that examined the potential health impact of replacing time spent sitting with alternative activities, from sleeping, to light-, moderate- to vigorous activity. While it’s no surprise that any amount of physical activity results in greater health benefits than sitting, it’s interesting to note that even sleeping beat out sitting in terms of the resulting health effect.
According to Travis Saunders, this “highlights the importance of studying the full 24-hour cycle of human movement, rather than the traditional focus on MVPA, which accounts for <5 percent of the total day.” Saunders interviewed Dr. Buman on his findings:
More Exercises You Can Do
I recently interviewed Dr. Goodman and he comprehensively described his program, he also had these useful suggestions to share:
"When it comes to your core, 'It's all in the hips, baby.' Every muscle that directly connects to the pelvis should be considered a piece of your core. To say it another way, your athletic ability, flexibility, balance and strength are all rather dependent on powerful hips. Here are some muscles that it would be a good idea to strengthen:
- Glutes: These are the powerhouses of the body. They do not work alone.
- Adductors (Inner thigh muscles): Your built in traction system. When the adductor group of muscles remains strong you have increased in hip stability, stronger arches in the feet, and a pelvic brace using a couple of the strongest muscles in the body.
- The deep lower back muscles: Facilitate the proper integration of the Posterior Chain of Muscles. Simply put, a weak lower back changes every aspect of your movement patterns for the worse.
- The abdomen and hip flexors: Think of the front of your body as a window that shows what is happening at the spine and pelvis. If the front is always too tight, the back is not working properly.
- The Transverse Abdominal muscle: A built in bracing system. When the transverse abdominus is tightened against the other muscles among this core group, the entire system becomes stronger.
In order to better stabilize your pelvis you need an integrated approach at strengthening all of the muscles surrounding it. Focusing on the abdomen and hip flexors excludes roughly 80% of the muscles which allow stable powerful movement from the integrated core of the body. I speak about adaptation very often, in this case by allowing our bodies to adapt to a seated position we have stopped using many of our most important muscles effectively.
You've got to get reacquainted with your posterior chain of muscles, get the back of your body stronger, and start by connecting the deepest layers. Use these 2 simple exercises to feel what I am talking about: (Founder and integrated back extension) I know what happens on the other end of this, I've had the personal reward of changing my movement patterns for the better. I used it to avoid back surgery at a young age and I now surprise myself daily at what I am able to do without pain.
A simple shift of patterns can lead to extraordinary, life changing results. Enjoy the process!"