Too much sitting can have a drastic impact on your health. Natalie Filatoff shows you some simple ways to get a wriggle on.
You won’t want to be sitting down when you read this. A study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine, reported: “on average every single hour of TV viewed after the age of 25 reduces the viewer's life expectancy by 21.8 minutes". And then came even more alarming news when an Australian study followed 200,000 people aged 45 and over for a three-year period found those who sat for more than 11 hours a day were more likely to die in the three years following the survey, than those who sat for shorter periods.
These findings are part of ongoing worldwide investigations into how our increasingly sedentary lifestyle is affecting our health. With every new study the argument for moving more often has been gaining traction.
The move to sitting
Since about the 1950s, life has become about bums on seats. Simple things have changed: the washing has come indoors with the use of dryers, TV has invited us to sit for leisure, and traffic and urban sprawl have increased the time we sit in transit. Even socialising has become computerised: figures from Nielsen Online Ratings found the 2.7 million Kiwis visiting Facebook during October 2012 clocked up an average of seven hours and 43 minutes on the site during the month. Unlike chatting over the fence with the neighbours, spending time on Facebook generally equals sitting.
For some of us, clocking up nine to 11 hours sitting each day (commuting, working, relaxing) is not unusual.
Hang on though — don't chuck in the desk job and retrain as a landscape gardener just yet.
Associate Professor David Dunstan and his colleagues at Melbourne's Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute have been working to find out how much we need to move to avoid the negative changes triggered by prolonged spells of sitting (see What happens when you sit, below). Their studies have shown just by getting up every 20 minutes and strolling (nothing Olympic) for two minutes, you can lower your blood glucose levels by up to 30 per cent. That’s why it is recommended we pace whenever we’re talking on the phone.
But walking isn’t the only remedy. What we can see from Dunstan’s research is that whenever sitting is unavoidable, it’s good to get our muscles — glucose-munching glutes (bum) and our hungry hamstrings (upper legs) — firing.
It’s important to note that even if you train for triathlons, love the gym or go for the recommended 30-minute walk a day, it is still vital to break up your sitting time.
Studies have started to distinguish between regular exercisers who nevertheless spend most of their days sitting (labelled ‘active couch potatoes’), and people who don’t exercise and are also sedentary for long periods of time.
The non-exercising sitters are at greatest risk from early death, for many reasons including the likelihood that they will be overweight and have poor cardiovascular fitness as well as a sluggish metabolism. But, surprisingly, the active couch potatoes — jogging every morning, yet pretty well seated all day — are still likely to suffer from an abnormal glucose uptake (see What happens when you sit, below). It’s the extended periods of sitting that bring our inflammatory response into play.
Once you start to think about it, there are plenty of ways you can add extra movement to your day. This includes moving between tasks, taking the stairs, and meeting with colleagues instead of emailing.
Take tea, for example. You may be sick of hearing how drinking tea (green tea, black tea, tea with milk, herbal teas) has many health benefits. But just taking a break from sitting and going to the kitchen to pour and steep — along with the subsequent journeys to the loo — makes your favourite brew an even bigger health booster.
Sitting in traffic? Squeeze your bottom cheeks together so that you rise in your seat, let go and repeat. The glutes are big muscles and the key to processing blood glucose is to give them a job to do.
Watching TV? Use ad breaks to get up and water the garden, or do a few stretches, wash the dishes or take out the rubbish and recycling.
The dail?y transport grind? Life is full of opportunities — pretend there are no seats on the bus or train and stand up! While we may love our cars, the clothes dryer, and the connectedness that social media gives us — there’s still plenty of room to move!
What happens when you sit?
When the powerhouse muscles of your lower body remain inactive (as they might when you’re deskbound and striving to meet a deadline, or stuck in traffic) your metabolism changes. If you sit for a long period, particularly after eating a meal or a snack, the glucose and fat in your blood from that meal are taken up by your cells much more slowly than if your muscles were active and using this supply. The resulting chain reaction, as explained by Dunstan, goes like this: the high levels of glucose (or sugar) and fat in your blood stimulate the body’s inflammatory response. That’s your immune system kicking in to deal with a problem. But when it’s called in too often (when each day involves lots of prolonged sitting), inflammation leads to oxidative stress which causes damage to your cells, increasing the risk of heart disease among other health conditions. Among the research backing this up is a major Canadian study of 17,000 people, conducted over 12 years. The study found that sitting for more than 23 hours a week gave people a 64 per cent greater chance of dying from heart disease, compared to those who sit for fewer than 11 hours a week.
Healthy food moves
Grow your own
Even aiming to grow basil or lettuce involves digging, planting, watering, picking or just standing and admiring…
Find inexpensive cafés and restaurants within an hour’s walk of home, walking there for the eating-out treat.
Cook for relaxation
On the weekend, make a big batch of a favourite dish that freezes well (bolognese, chicken curry or meatballs). Chopping, stirring, packing portions — it’s all standing up/moving activity.
Make a cake by hand
Stand/move in the kitchen: ditch those electrical appliances. Cream spread with a wooden spoon, beat eggs with a beater, fold in flour with a spatula.
Grab takeaways on foot
Make a rule that you can order takeaways — but only if you walk to pick them up.