We get it, we get it: exercise is good for us. Mountains of evidence show the endless benefits of routine physical activity, and federal health guidelines recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day, such as a brisk walk.
As extensive research shows, when you adhere to a physical fitness regimen, you will likely boost your cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, enhance metabolism and improve levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. Exercise also tends to reduce diabetes risk and certain cancers. Last but not least, physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight, which elevates all of these benefits even further.
Yet now, researchers are starting to suspect that even if you keep a committed, regular exercise program, that might not be enough to counterbalance the effects of prolonged sitting during the remainder of the day.
Epidemiologist Steven Blair, a University of South Carolina public health professor, has been studying physical activity and health for more than years. As he explained, “let’s say you do 30 minutes of walking five days a week (as recommended by federal health officials), and let’s say you sleep for eight hours. Well, that still leaves 15.5 hours” in the day.
A large percent of American workers have sedentary jobs and then turn to more sedentary “activity” after work itself, like watching TV or loafing around a dinner table talking. When everything gets added up, Blair says, “it’s a lot more sitting than moving.”
Blair just spearheaded a major study at the University of South Carolina that tracked the risk of dying from heart disease among adult men. He determined the amount of time the men spent sitting — including driving to and form work, sitting at desks, and lounging in front of the TV.
“Those who were sitting more were substantially more likely to die,” Blair says. Does this mean that the effects of sitting on the job could even be considered a kind of on-the-job injury? Perhaps. Will workplace injury attorneys get involved one day? Let’s hope not!
What does seem certain are the harmful effects of spending too much time parked in that chair. In particular, he found that men who reported more than 23 hours a week of sedentary activity ran a 64% greater risk of death from heart disease than those who reported under 11 hours of being sedentary each week. And here’s the catch: many of these men routinely exercised. Blair notes that researchers are only just starting to see the true risks of a mostly sedentary day.
“If you’re sitting, your muscles are not contracting, perhaps except to type. But the big muscles, like in your legs and back, are sitting there pretty quietly,” Blair says. And because the major muscles aren’t moving, metabolism slows down. We’re finding that people who sit more have less desirable levels” of cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides and even waist size, he says, which increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and a number of health problems.
‘Our Body Just Kind Of Goes Into Shutdown’
Dr. Toni Yancey, co-director of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity at UCLA, has spent years working to develop programs and incentives that motivate people to get up and move around.
Yancey explains what seems like obvious fact: “We just aren’t really structured to be sitting for such long periods of time, and when we do that, our body just kind of goes into shutdown.” She suggests routine breaks during the course of your day at the desk. Her book, Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time, gives workers step by step instructions on how to integrate such activity into the cubicle, corporate boardroom, and even while watching sporting events.
Even if your workplace doesn’t offer routine hourly breaks, there are plenty of things we can do at our desks to break up a period of inactivity and arts moving – even if it’s only for a few minutes. She also recommends using an exercise ball rather than a desk chair, since these can help strengthen core muscles while improving flexibility and balance. Balancing the ball also takes more energy, so a few extra calories will also be burned while typing at your desk.
This might not seem like much, but an Australian study indicated that these kinds of mini-breaks, only one-minute in duration throughout the day, can make a measurable difference. Workers can simply stand up, dance around, wiggle a bit, take a couple steps back and forth, or march in place. Such movements work to lower blood sugar, triglycerides, cholesterol and waist size.
“If there’s a fountain of youth, it is probably physical activity,” says Yancey, noting that research has shown benefits to every organ system in the body. “So the problem isn’t whether it’s a good idea,” she says. “The problem is how to get people to do more of it.”