Don't Take This Pandemic Sitting Down

Sitting can be bad for you, and here's why.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

Okay, fess up. Are you sitting around just waiting for COVID-19 to go away? Chances are, we all are losing fitness by the day, and we are all sitting even more than we usually do, which is bad enough, as I discuss in my new book Exercise is Medicine.

So, here's some motivation to get you off—and at least walking circles around—the couch.

In the latest (April) issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, British researchers reported on their observational study called "Walking Away From Type2Diabetes."

They set out to see if people could learn to substitute some light physical activity for sedentary time. They collected data from 647 participants at high risk for diabetes, including people over age 65 and those who were obese. A third of the group were women. The participants wore accelerometers—those little devices that track physical movement—except while they slept.

Sure enough, the researchers found after one year that reallocating time from sitting to light physical activity paid off. Every 30 minutes that a person substituted movement for sitting around was correlated with smaller waistlines, lowered blood sugar, lowered triglycerides, and overall reduced cardiometabolic risk. And the more intense the physical activity, the bigger the improvements.

That finding fits with the research I talk about in my book. Not to put too fine a point on it, sitting too much—all by itself—can raise the risk of disease and premature mortality, even if you dutifully exercise. In fact, many well-educated people do exercise, but they're also more likely to have desk jobs.

One large 2012 study of 240,819 healthy American adults, for instance, showed that more time spent sitting was linked to premature death from heart disease and cancer. In fact, even among people who exercised more than seven hours a week, watching TV for more than seven hours a day was linked to a 50 percent greater risk of all-cause mortality and a two-fold greater risk of cardiovascular mortality.

Sobering, isn't it? Especially since the average American sits for 13 hours a day—way too much.

But take heart. Replacing just two minutes of sitting every hour with a bit of moving around helps mitigate the risks of sitting. Even better, don't sit for more than 30 minutes at a stretch. Set your watch or a timer to ping you every so often, then get up, get a drink of water, sort the laundry, go to the bathroom, anything that makes you stand up and move.

"Why," you may be wondering, "is something as natural as sitting so bad?" Lots of reasons, actually. But a major one is that sitting increases visceral fat. Visceral fat is not an inert blob of tissue, as once thought, but an active organ that pumps out chemicals called cytokines (adipokines) that lead to chronic, systemic inflammation. Chronic inflammation, in turn, leads to insulin resistance (a precursor of diabetes), atherosclerosis, and neurological degeneration, among other things.

It gets worse. A sedentary lifestyle is also linked to high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, gallstones, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, some cancers, cognitive dysfunction, dementia, osteoarthritis, low back pain, frailty, decreased functional independence, constipation, muscle weakness, depression… need I go on?

Indeed, physical inactivity (a broader category than just sitting) is so lethal—and so common—that it now accounts for an estimated 5.3 million deaths worldwide, according to a landmark 2012 study. That's 9 percent of all premature mortality (death before a person's statistical life expectancy).

On the plus side, even just standing—not exercising, but simply not sitting—would reduce premature deaths from all causes, according to a study of 16,585 Canadian adults.

The take-home lesson is clear: Yes, we're under house arrest at the moment and for the foreseeable future. But we don't have to take this pandemic sitting down.