If your job requires you to sit from 9 to 5 or longer and you’re beginning to notice backaches and numbness in your nether regions, take note. Your job may be injuring or, worse, killing you slowly.
Michael Jensen, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, and David Dunstan, an Australian researcher at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, are studying the link between sitting down and premature death. The results are revelatory, to say the least.
Jensen explains that when his team was studying weight control, they discovered that some people “spontaneously start moving round and don’t gain weight” when they have overeaten. These people don’t dash to the gym; they just walk more, hop up from the couch to run errands or find other excuses to get onto their feet.
“This really got us thinking about this urge to move,” Jensen says, “and how important that might be for maintaining good health.” Apparently, moderate to vigorous activity — what people like to call ‘exercise’ — occupies just 5 percent or less of people’s days.”
That led them to a field known as “inactivity research,” which suggests that inactivity, particularly sitting, can be very bad for your health. “The sobering reality,” Dunstan says, “is that across a 14- or 15-hour waking day, we’re getting 55 to 75 percent sedentary time.
In 2010, a team led by Alpa Patel of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta compared mortality rates of those who spent six hours a day or more sitting and those who reported three or fewer hours they found that extra time on the couch. Results showed that there was a 34 percent higher mortality rate for women and 17 percent higher for men.
Patel’s study also revealed that people who spent hours sitting had a higher mortality rate even if they worked out for 45 to 60 minutes a day. She referred to them as “active couch potatoes.”
Couch potatoes, active and inactive, are not the only ones affected. Those engaged in activities like watching TV, reading a novel or sitting at a desk are equally at harm.
The message is clear: Extensive sitting still for hours at a time might be a health risk regardless of what you do with the rest of your day.
So, what can people do to avoid this?
- Exercise: An hour’s workout cannot undo hours of sitting, but it is still good for your health.
- Take short activity breaks: Force yourself to get off your desk and do something else that requires you to, say, walk to your office printer. If at home, get off your computer and do the dishes.
- Pace around the room: It’s the easiest way to burn 16 calories and clear your mind.
- Schedule in activity breaks: Decide if you want frequent short breaks or less-frequent, longer ones and make a habit of sticking to it.
Ms. Patel ultimately has the last word, “The nice take-home message is that anything is better than nothing.”