A lot of us spend hours each day sitting in a chair. I’m sitting in one right now as I write this post. This seems like a natural part of life and nothing to worry about if you’re otherwise fit and active. However, this may not be true. The fact is that your chair, or the act of sitting in it, may shorten your lifespan… or it can just make you fat.
I first learned about this issue when reading an article on the New York Times website which talked about various studies done on the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle. What caught my eye in that article were two things:
- The discussion of sitting was pretty much unrelated to workouts. The piece focused on the kind of active or inactive lifestyle we lead through most of our day. Whether we dedicate a focused part of our time to exercise seemed to be of little importance.
- In one of the studies mentioned in the article, it was found that people who sit for 6 hours each day have a death rate which is up to 40% higher than people who sit less than 3 hours.
This second part got my attention and I thought to myself: “Is my chair actually killing me?”
Since I couldn’t expect any clear answers from my chair I decided to do some of my own research and see what relevant studies say about the effects of lengthy sitting and what, if anything, can people do about it.
Why Is This a Problem Now?
Since there have been chairs for hundreds of years, the question arises: why is this becoming a problem for us now, today?
The answer is simple: we sit far more than people did in earlier generations. This has several causes:
- More of us work in sedentary jobs. There are fewer farmers and craftsmen who work with their hands or do other manual labor. A lot more people than ever before spend their work day sitting at a desk.
- Our transportation is all done sitting down. Back in the day cars used to be rare. People had to walk a lot more. Today, there are people who take their car anywhere, no matter how short the distance is.
- Our leisure time is more sedentary. Between TV, the internet, and video games, we simply sit for a lot more hours than ever before.
Sedentary Lifestyle Research – What Sitting Does To You
The first study I want to tell you about reviewed how prolonged sitting periods affect waist circumference. In simple terms, the researchers wanted to see whether people who sat down for too long tended to be fatter than those who didn’t .
The study found that people who avoided sitting down for too long at a stretch by taking active breaks, tended to weight less, had a slimmer waistline, and scored better on certain health criteria.
OK, so what? you may ask. The people who were less active gained more weight than those who were active. Isn’t it logical? Yes it is. However, when you learn more details you get a clearer and more disturbing picture.
This study clearly states that taking breaks helps improve your health regardless of how long you sit in total and regardless of whether or not you workout. So, just because you happen to do a workout every now and then, doesn’t make sitting down for hours a good thing.
A different study I found, done in Cambridge UK, looked at 365 men and women over a 5 year period and examined signs of insulin resistance and the correlation between those signs and a sedentary lifestyle . What the study found supported the conclusion of the first study: people who sit a lot tend to develop insulin resistance (a symptom of diabetes) even if they engage in moderate-intensive exercise. So, working out isn’t enough. You need to lead an active lifestyle or you may still face health issues.
A third study I read, examined the connection between sedentary time and the metabolic syndrome, a condition which relates to a variety of illnesses and health risks . What was found is that people with the metabolic syndrome spent more hours sitting on average and tended to have longer periods of uninterrupted sitting. They get up from their chair less frequently than those people who exhibit better health. It should be noted that the risk increased substantially for sedentary people, so this is something which is worth taking into consideration.
What Can You Do To Stop Your Chair From Shortening Your Life
- Get up and out of your chair – Take frequent and active breaks. If you have to work with a timer do so. Get a standing desk, make sure to walk for a few minutes every hour, get up from your couch during commercial breaks. Anything to get you moving.
- Think “Active” – Inactivity is making you fat. There is ample proof of that. By being more active you will find it much easier to maintain your weight or even drop a few pounds. Small activities burn a few calories each but together they add up to quite a lot. Read my post on non exercise activity thermogenesis for more on how effective little activities can be.
- Get active hobbies which force you to stand – Dancing, bowling, pool, Tai Chi, all these activities will get you out of your chair.
So, in conclusion, don’t make your chair into a permanent base. You need to avoid sitting for too long at a time and reduce sedentary time altogether. This is a key for better health and less body fat.
- Genevieve N. Healy, David W. Dunstan, Jo Salmon. Breaks in Sedentary Time Beneficial associations with metabolic risk. Diabetes Care April 2008 vol. 31 no. 4 661-666.
- Helmerhorst HJ, Wijndaele K, Brage S, Wareham NJ, Ekelund U. Objectively measured sedentary time may predict insulin resistance independent of moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity. Diabetes. 2009 Aug;58(8):1776-9. Epub 2009 May 26.
- Andrea Bankoski, Tamara B. Harris, James J. McClain. Sedentary Activity Associated With Metabolic Syndrome Independent of Physical Activity. Diabetes Care February 2011 vol. 34 no. 2 497-503.