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How Sitting All Day Is Damaging Your Body


Do you sit in an office chair or on your couch for more than six hours a day? Then here are some disturbing facts: Your risk of heart disease has increased by up to 64 percent. You’re shaving off seven years of quality life. You’re also more at risk for certain types of cancer. Simply put, sitting is killing you. That’s the bad news. The good news: It’s easy to counteract no matter how lazy you are.

Let’s start with the basics. Since childhood you’ve known being a couch potato is bad. But why? Simply put, our bodies weren’t made to sit all day. Sitting for long periods of time, even with exercise, has a negative effect on our health. What’s worse, many of us sit up to 15 hours a day. That means some of us spend the bulk of our waking moments on the couch, in an office chair, or in a car.

Sitting all day long isn’t hard to counteract, but you have to keep your eye on two details: your daily activity and the amount of time you sit. Let’s start by taking a look at what sitting all day does to your body.

An Estimated Timeline of the Effects of Sitting

 It’s difficult to get an accurate assessment of what sitting all day will do to you because the effects work in tandem with diet and other risk factors. So we’re going to start with a relatively healthy person who does not drink in excess, smoke, and who isn’t overweight. Then we’ll estimate the effects of sitting for over six hours a day based on what starts happening immediately after you sit down. For a general overview of the effects, take a look at this chart from Medical Billing and Coding to see a breakdown of what that happens in your body when you sit down. (If the majority of your sitting time takes place at a desk, keep in mind that a standing desk has its own problems, too.)

Immediately After Sitting

Right after you sit down, the electrical activity in your muscles slows down and your calorie-burning rate drops to one calorie per minute. This is about a third of what it does if you’re walking. If you sit for a full 24-hour period, you experience a 40 percent reduction in glucose uptake in insulin, which can eventually cause type 2 diabetes.

After Two Weeks of Sitting for More Than Six Hours a Day

Within five days of changing to a sedentary lifestyle, your body increases plasma triglycerides (fatty molecules), LDL cholesterol (aka bad cholesterol), and insulin resistance. This means your muscles aren’t taking in fat and your blood sugar levels go up, putting you at risk for weight gain. After just two weeks your muscles start to atrophy and your maximum oxygen consumption drops. This makes stairs harder to climb and walks harder to take. Even if you were working out every day the deterioration starts the second you stop moving.

After One Year of Sitting More Than Six Hours a Day

After a year, the longer term effects of sitting can start to manifest subtly. According to this study by Nature, you might start to experience weight gain and high cholesterol. Studies in woman suggest you can lose up to 1 percent of bone mass a year by sitting for over six hours a day.

After 10-20 Years of Sitting More Than Six Hours a Day

Sitting for over six hours a day for a decade or two can cut away about seven quality adjusted life years (the kind you want). It increases your risk of dying of heart disease by 64 percent and your overall risk of prostate or breast cancer increases 30 percent.

If this looks bad, don’t worry. We’re going to show you how to counteract the negative effects of sitting without totally altering your lifestyle. Photo by John O’Nolan.

Counteract the Consequences of Sitting and Still Maintain Your Current Lifestyle

Happlily, you only need to do two things to counter the effects of sitting all day:

  1. Remember to stand once an hour.
  2. Get about 30 minutes of activity per day.

Whether you’re a couch potato watching marathons of Firefly or an office worker sitting in front of a computer, an Australian study suggests short breaks from sitting once an hour can alleviate most of the problems described above. This isn’t about working out (which is positive in its own right but doesn’t counteract the effects of long periods of sitting). It’s about creating pockets of moderate activity throughout the day and giving your body a respite from sitting.

What exactly is moderate activity? I talked with Dr. Brian Parr, associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences at the University of South Carolina Aiken to find out. He points out the distinction between moderate activity and exercise:

We usually tell people moderate activity is equivalent to a brisk walk. This would include yard work or cleaning your house — anything that gets you moving counts. You don’t have to do what people think of as exercise.

Of course, couch potatoes and office workers don’t always have thirty minutes to spare. After all, a Firefly bender might take up an entire evening. Here’s the good news: you can break up that thirty minutes throughout the day. Dr. Parr continues:

This is the best part. We usually tell people to break it up into ten minute segments, but that’s because it’s the most practical. If I tell you that you can spread it out throughout the day, you’re going to say, “Well, I stood up and walked across the room to my soda.” What was that, about ten seconds? You’ll start to micromanage. From my perspective, that’s not how people should do it. But you could do it that way.

The main reason you want to shoot for the ten minute chunks is because you’re creating a mini-stress in your body that helps increase your endurance. In the real world, this means you won’t get tired halfway up the stairs. Think of it this way: you don’t train for a marathon by sprinting for ten minutes every day. Instead, you increase your endurance with longer jogs. The same goes for daily activity, you want to sustain activity for long enough to make it useful in your daily life.

Let’s look at how you can estimate your daily activity and make sure you get out of the office chair throughout the day. Photo by cell105.


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