Most of us have heard the phrase, “Sitting is the new smoking.” The implication, of course, is that sitting too much is actually harmful to your health. What might surprise you, however, is just how detrimental sitting can be. With one in four Americans sitting for eight hours per day or more, there’s never been a better time for all of us to get up and get moving.
Perhaps the biggest reason why sitting too much is harmful to your health is that all the time you spend sitting is time spent not being physically active – and it’s well-established that even light activity like walking or housework supports physical and mental well-being.
In addition, excessive sitting can lead to weaker muscles and bones, stiffer joints and impaired digestion. Doing less physical activity also means your energy expenditure decreases – meaning you burn fewer calories throughout the day and are more likely to put on weight. And because muscle burns more energy than fat, the loss of muscle mass we see due to sedentary behavior can drive even more weight gain.
Sitting down too much also can impair circulation and cause blood to pool in the legs. This can lead to bulging rope-like formations called varicose veins.
In my practice, I see a vicious cycle affecting many of my (especially older) patients: Sitting leads to weakness and decreased energy, which makes it harder to move. And because it’s harder to move, people move even less – leading to even more muscle loss and an increased risk of problems such as weight gain, poor balance and falls.
Simply put, we know from decades of research that sitting too much – the hallmark of sedentary behavior – dramatically increases a person’s risk of chronic health problems, including neck and back pain, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even depression and certain types of cancer. One 2019 study found that people who sit for more than eight hours per day and report no physical activity are more than twice as likely to die of cardiovascular disease than people who sit for fewer than four hours per day and do at least one hour of physical activity.
The same study‚ involving nearly 150,000 adults, also found that replacing just one hour of sitting with an hour of moderate intensity exercise was linked to a 20% reduced risk of cardiovascular-related death.
Interestingly – and I think this is a crucial point – some research suggests that the dangers of excessive sitting may be independent of how much a person exercises. In other words, your hourlong gym session might not necessarily be enough to combat the damaging effects of those other eight hours you accumulated throughout the day sitting in your car, office chair or on your couch.
Here’s what this means for you: Exercising regularly is essential for a longer, healthier and more fulfilling life – no question. And even just 30-60 minutes of moderate physical activity per day could be enough to combat the negative health effects of sitting, though this isn’t conclusive in the research.
But just because exercise may offset some of the negative impact of sitting doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of how much you sit day-to-day. So whenever possible, find more ways to move.
Strategies to sit less
• Drink water. Staying well-hydrated offers its own health benefits, but it also causes you to urinate – which means you’ll have to get up more.
• If you watch television, get up during commercial breaks to do light movement – squats, lunges or even a quick walk around the house.
• Set a timer on your phone to remind you to stand up and move around every 30 minutes or so.
• Challenge yourself to take all of your business and/or personal phone calls while walking.
• Adopt an active hobby like gardening, or find ways to move more while doing your current favorite hobbies, for example, make a stand-up desk for arts and crafts or listen to audiobooks while walking instead of only reading on the couch.
• Take a virtual fitness class. PhysioFit offers a variety of classes to choose from in the safety and comfort of your home. All classes are live and run on Zoom with personal instruction and interaction. A group exercise setting helps keep you accountable – and that’s the secret to your success.
If you have a health condition that makes movement difficult, consult with a physical therapist, who can help you move more safely and comfortably.
Kim Gladfelter is the owner of PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness in Los Altos. PhysioFit offers both in-person/virtual physical therapy and virtual therapeutic fitness. For more information, call 887-6046 or visit physiofitpt.com.