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You Shouldn't Sit All Day Long

Sitting Too Long

Story at-a-glance -

  • Efforts to increase exercise are not the best way to tackle the “epidemic” of too much sitting
  • The best techniques to reduce sedentary behavior targeted sitting time directly, according to new research
  • The best strategies include access to a sit-stand desk at work, tracking your sitting time, setting goals to limit sitting time and more

By Dr. Mercola

Are you sitting down? Mounting research suggests this all-too-common state is detrimental to your physical and mental well being. You've likely heard some of the news by now, but did you know sedentary behavior is the fourth leading cause of premature death worldwide?1

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) in one meta-analysis of 42 studies. This included:2

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

On average, a U.S. adult spends nine to 10 hours sitting each day,3 which is so much inactivity that even a 30- or 60-minute workout can't counteract its effects.4 This is why efforts to increase exercise on a large scale, while important, are likely not the best way to tackle the "epidemic" of too much sitting.

What Works Best to Reduce Sitting Time?

A recent study published in the journal Health Psychology Review looked into which behavior change strategies work best to reduce sedentary behavior.5 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:6

  • 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

Research by Dr. James Levine and colleagues showed, for instance, 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.7 The researchers of the featured study explained:8

"Very or quite promising interventions tended to have targeted sedentary behavior instead of physical activity. Interventions based on environmental restructuring, persuasion, or education were most promising.

Self-monitoring, problem solving, and restructuring the social or physical environment were particularly promising behavior change techniques. Future sedentary reduction interventions might most fruitfully incorporate environmental modification and self-regulatory skills training."

Do You Know How Long You Spend Sitting?

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.

Dr. David Alter authored one study that found prolonged sedentary time was "independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity."

Increases in all-cause mortality, heart disease incidence and mortality, cancer and type 2 diabetes were all linked to too much sedentary time.9 He, too, suggests monitoring your sitting time and then setting reasonable goals to reduce it. He told TIME:10

"Next is setting achievable goals and finding opportunities to incorporate greater physical activity — and less time sitting — into your daily life.

For example, at work, stand up or move for one to three minutes every half hour; and when watching television, stand or exercise during commercials."

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Little Changes Add Up

If you work a desk job and must spend some time either sitting or standing, remember that this can often be interspersed with regular movement. For instance, you can pace while talking on the phone and break up periods of sitting or standing by doing simple exercises at your desk.

Even movements such as fidgeting appear beneficial. 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.

Women who reported fidgeting often fared far better – after sitting for five to six hours a day, their risk of mortality decreased. Further, there was no increased mortality risk from longer sitting time in either the "middle" or "high" fidgeting groups.11

Another example, people who made a point to get up and walk around for two minutes out of every hour increased their lifespan by 33 percent compared to those who did not.12 Those who stood up for two minutes an hour did not reap the benefits that those who walked for two minutes did.

This is an important point, as you want to avoid the mistake of simply swapping one sedentary activity (sitting) for what basically amounts to another (stationary standing).

More Movement (Not Standing) Is Key

A lot of the headlines suggest you can simply counter the ill effects of excessive sitting by standing. This is true to some extent, but excessive standing in one position likely isn't healthy either. Researcher Melvyn Hillsdon of the University of Exeter, explained:13

" … the problem lies in the absence of movement rather than the time spent sitting itself … Any stationary posture where energy expenditure is low may be detrimental to health, be it sitting or standing."

For instance, too much standing can lead to back pain, varicose veins and even worsening of conditions like heart disease and arthritis. On the other hand, standing for at least six hours a day may reduce your risk of obesity by up to 35 percent depending on your gender.14

Ideally, strive for a balance between sitting, standing and moving. One of the best ways to do 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 UK's National Health Service (NHS), the average person only walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps per day.18

Bust Your Sedentary Lifestyle by Striving for 10,000 Steps a Day

Part of what makes a goal of 10,000 steps a day so important is that it gets you up and 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.

This includes strength training twice a week, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) twice a week with weights or on an elliptical machine, and a light 10-minute workout three times a week on recovery days. 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.

One study found 10,000 steps a day wasn't enough to improve body composition in postmenopausal women; 12,500 steps were recommended to improve health among this population. Children, too, may need slightly more than 10,000 steps a day. The Presidents Council on Fitness recommends at least 12,000 steps a day for children ages 6 to 12.19

The More You Move the Better You'll Feel

Some people initially are hesitant to give up their chair, but this doesn't have to be an all or nothing commitment. After you've been sitting for a time, make a conscious effort to stand up. Change your position. Do a few burpees or jumping jacks, or jog in place.

Get in the habit of walking to talk to your co-workers instead of sending e-mails (or walk to talk to your neighbors or to run errands, if possible, instead of driving).

Your ancestors certainly did not spend long hours in one position each day, and this is what you want to mimic – the movement of a hunter-gatherer, which includes a variety of body positions and movement broken up by occasional sitting and standing still.

Even when you sit, change things up by using an exercise ball for a "chair" or "perching" on the edge of a bench. If you have a meeting at work, suggest your team talks while out for a walk. While at home, look at your couch as a temporary stopping point, not a place to plant yourself for the bulk of your afternoon or evening.

As with many aspects of a healthy lifestyle, once you get into the habit of moving more you'll find you feel better for it and, before you know it, it will become second nature – something you do automatically without even thinking.