I know I’ve been spending too much time on the computer the last couple of years and have started seeing and feeling the side effects, especially in my legs and veins. I’ve read a number of times lately that prolonged sitting can be as detrimental to our health as smoking and, judging from my own body, I can see why. I use to think that exercising at the end of the day would off-set any negative effects of spending so many hours seated, but have since found out that isn’t the case. It is much better to have multiple short periods of activity interspersed throughout the day, than one heavy duty session at the end. “Fidgeting” (e. g. moving your feet, flexing your toes and calves, etc.) while seated has also been found to be of help.
By Dr. Mercola
Is it possible to be incredibly fit yet still be at high risk of premature death and disability due to inactivity?
Startling as that may sound, mounting research says, yes, as does Dr. James Levine, author of the book Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.
Dr. Levine is co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative, and he’s also the inventor of the treadmill desk. His book is quite an interesting read. It reminds me of the similar paths I went through in my journey to help people understand new paradigms of health.
Like any novel concept, there’s resistance from the existing paradigm to change, accept, and embrace that which is new. And Dr. Levine has certainly suffered the slings and arrows of being on the cutting edge of a new paradigm.
But it’s a phenomenal story, and I for one am now absolutely convinced that sitting is in and of itself a root problem of many of our chronic health problems. As Dr. Levine says: “Because we’ve become so used to being seated… we’ve failed to realize that this is a major health concern.”
Now that I know the serious damage that sitting can do, I am really perplexed at how I missed such an important health principle for the first 60 years of my life. It seems a really foolish mistake and one that I hope you will not repeat.
Slings and Arrows…
In one of his early speeches, he presented compelling data showing that people prone to weight gain and obesity are those who stay seated for two and a quarter hours longer each day than those who go to the gym and happen to be lean.
The insinuation that sitting was independently harmful, and harmful enough to kill, was so unpopular that his peers sent letters to senior faculty at the Mayo Clinic suggesting he was psychiatrically ill, and he was required to be evaluated by a psychiatrist.
Since then, some 10,000 publications have shown that, indeed, sitting is harmful to your health, irrespective of other lifestyle habits, including an excellent exercise program.
The simple truth is that sitting is affecting the health of millions of Americans and millions of people in high- and middle-income countries around the world. This unlike other things, is something we can do something about.
And I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Levine when he says that this is something we must act upon. Fortunately, the solution is simple: simply stand up! And avoid sitting down!
“My core cause is the patient who has been battling with obesity, who has been battling with type 2 diabetes, and who doesn’t go to the gym for various reasons: a) they may not be able to afford it; b) they may not actually have access; c) they may have three jobs and do not have the time.
And fourth… many people who have excess weight feel looked upon badly and have bad feelings about themselves when they enter the hallowed territory of the gymnasium. The 75 percent of Americans – more in fact – who do not exercise regularly are my core cause,” Dr. Levine says.
An Exercise Regimen May Not Be Enough to Counteract Ill Effects of Prolonged Sitting
While it appears counter intuitive, it also turns out that regular exercise does not protect you from the hazards of prolonged sitting. For Dr. Levine, this was a rather upsetting discovery, as it was for me when I first learned this a few years ago.
It can be quite disconcerting to realize that even if you dutifully go to the gym several times a week and are really fit, it is still not enough to counteract the many hours you sit during the rest of your day…
“There are a couple of important points,” he says. “First of all, if you go to the gym, that does do you good. In fact, that is a phenomenal dose-response relationship. The more you do, the more benefit you get.
That does not, however, relinquish you from the responsibility of being active throughout the day or of realizing the opportunities to be active throughout the day.
What is interesting is that the molecular mechanisms that come into play when somebody sits for hours on end, if you think about it, are actually not reversed by allowing all of that sedentariness to occur and then having a bout of activity in the evening or even in the morning.
It’s the hours of inactivity that are associated with the molecular mechanisms at the cellular level that are associated with causality for diabetes, hypertension, and even potentially cancer and other deleterious effects.”
Why Sitting Causes So Much Harm, and Why Standing Promotes Physical Health
According to Dr. Levine, there are at least 24 different chronic diseases and conditions associated with excess sitting. How do we reconcile and explain how something so simple can have such a massive expanse of ill health consequence?
According to Dr. Levine, when you have been sitting for a long period of time and then get up, at a molecular level, within 90 seconds of getting off your bottom, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol—which are mediated by insulin—are activated.
As soon as you stand up, a series of molecular mechanisms at the cell level set off a cascade of activities that impact the cellular functioning of your muscles. The way your body handles blood sugar is beneficially impacted, for example. Therefore, the disease prevention for diabetes comes into play. All of these molecular effects are activated simply by weight-bearing; by carrying your bodyweight upon your legs. Those cellular mechanisms are also responsible for pushing fuels into your cells.
“It makes perfect sense,” Dr. Levine says. “If you’ve been resting after a hard morning’s work and then you get back on your legs in order to go back into the fields, of course, your whole body system is to be pushing what you’ve just had for lunch into your muscle, into your body so that you can function well in agricultural practice, which, up until 200 years ago, was what the human body ultimately functioned to do.
The nature of the human body was to be active and moving all day. The body was never designed to be crammed into a chair where all of these cellular mechanisms get switched off. Obviously we’re supposed to rest from time to time. But that rest is supposed to break up the activity. It’s not supposed to be the way of life. [T]his very unnatural [sitting] posture is not only bad for your back, your wrists, your arms, and your metabolism, but it actually switches off the fundamental fueling systems that integrate what’s going on in the bloodstream with what goes on in the muscles and in the tissues.
As a consequence of that, blood sugar levels are inappropriately high in people who sit. The blood pressure is inappropriately high, the cholesterol handling is inappropriately high, and those toxins, those growth factors that will potentially lead to cancer, particularly breast cancer, are elevated in those people who sit too much. The solution? Get up!”
Studies looking at life in natural agriculture environments show that people in agrarian villages sit for about three hours a day. The average American office worker can sit for 13 to 15 hours a day. The difference between a “natural” amount of sitting and modern, inappropriate amounts of sitting is huge. So, when trying to determine what the “minimum dose of standing” might be, it’s important to realize that most people are not dealing with a minor tweak… Most people need to figure out how to get out of their chair for several hours each day. But as a general guideline, to give you a starting point, Dr. Levine notes:
“The bottom-line is that if you’ve been sitting for an hour, you’ve been sitting for too long. We should all be up at least 10 minutes out of every hour.”
I’ve previously recommended standing up and doing some exercises at your desk every 10-15 minutes to counteract the ill effects of sitting, but after discussing the issue with Dr. Levine and reading his book, I’m convinced this isn’t even enough. I really think the answer is to stand up as much as possible. Standing for 10 minutes for every hour of sitting is really the bare bones minimum; it’s still far from ideal. It would seem far wiser to strive to sit as little as possible, certainly less than three hours a day.
I was able to reduce my normal 12 to 14 hours of daily sitting to under one hour. And I noticed one amazing thing: the back pain I’ve struggled with for many years, simply disappeared. It would normally start after I’d walk or stand for more than 30 minutes, but since I reduced my sitting, the pain disappeared.
I had previously tried four different chiropractors, posture exercises, Foundation Training, ab work, inversion tables, standing up every 15 minutes to stretch, and strength training. But nothing would touch it, other than to radically reduce my sitting. During my coast to coast trip, I would have to sit on a plane for five hours and I noticed when I did that, the pain returned for a day. Clearly, my body was speaking to my very strongly that I needed to radically reduce my sitting. I am still surprised I missed this important health principle for so long.
Another recent epiphany I had is that most of us need to walk much more than we do. Thankfully, there are now fitness trackers that allow us to objectively record how much we walk and there will be a literal explosion of the use of these devices in the next few years. The Apple Watch being launched next year is a good example. Most of us need about 10,000 steps a day, which is a bit more than five miles (8-9 km). The key realization I had though is that this walking is in addition to, not in place of, your normal exercise program. It’s even better if you can walk barefoot so you can get grounded, and better yet if you can walk on the beach by the ocean.
Making It Work in the Work Place…
Not only do studies show that body weight improves when people stand up more during their work hours, productivity also goes up in companies that make such arrangements. As noted by Dr. Levine:
“Hardcore productivity – whether that’s the number of loads processed in one company, the financial services doubling in profit from another company – those numbers improved. The actual profits improved… The solution is simple, because actually the solution is to get people up. But the complexity – hence the book Get Up! – is: How do you actually build a working solution for a US corporation?
Are You Ready to Give Up Your Chair?
The evidence is overwhelming at this point—10,000 studies and growing—that prolonged sitting is devastating to your health. It actively promotes dozens of chronic diseases, including overweight and type 2 diabetes. As a general guideline, if you’ve been sitting for an hour, you’ve sat too long. Dr. Levine recommends sitting no more than 50 minutes out of every hour. But that’s really a bare bones minimum recommendation. Ideally, you’d want to limit sitting altogether.
Again, people living in agricultural communities sit an average of just three hours a day, which would be an admirable goal. While it may sound “impossible,” it is doable—with a bit of ingenuity and mindfulness, I managed to limit my sitting to one hour per day while on my coast to coast tour. In addition to limiting your sitting as much as you possibly can, I also recommend challenging yourself to walk 10,000 steps per day. This is over and above your regular fitness program and standing up during work. Consider one of the new fitness trackers that can monitor your steps and your sleep.
Also from Dr. Mercola:
The science is equally clear when it comes to inactivity. Chronic sitting actively promotes dozens of chronic diseases, including obesity and type 2 diabetes, even if you’re very fit and exercise regularly, so simply standing up more is a step in the right direction.
One recent study showed that standing for at least six hours a day may reduce your risk of obesity by 32 to 35 percent depending on your gender. Men can reduce their risk of obesity by as much as 59 percent by standing 12 hours a day.
In fact, standing up as much as possible appears to be a crucial component of a healthy lifestyle that promotes longevity. It’s not only that exercise has benefits, but that inactivity has significant dangers. Thirty years ago, research from Cooper’s clinic in Dallas showed that exercise was associated with a dramatic reduction in the rate of cancer. This is a well-accepted, non-controversial scientific fact, and it goes beyond its effects on obesity.
Today, I believe I finally understand the mechanisms responsible for these results, and it’s because exercise upregulates dysfunctional mitochondria. I now firmly believe mitochondrial health is the core of most cancers. Mitochondrial dysfunction is what causes the genetic problems. It’s not the genetic problems that cause the cancer.
And mitochondrial dysfunction is what you prevent with exercise. I’d never recognized that before, but now it seems quite clear that this is how it works.
More on the ill effects of sitting too much:
Tips for proper sitting:
Related article on how standing helps with longevity and length of telomeres:
What’s nice is apparently even doing 2 minutes of light intensity activity, such as walking, every hour (see this article) can defend against sitting’s increase in your risk for heart disease, diabetes and other ills. I have a free app on my computer called Mindful Clock that makes a lovely chiming sound on the hour (it can be set to ring more frequently) that is not only good for reminding me to stop and recenter myself regularly, but also to get up and do a little moving around. I have a link to the download on my Resources page.
Also, here’s a routine from Dr Kareem F Samhouri to try for counteracting long periods of sitting….
Do THIS If You Sit More Than 4 Hours Per Day
If you spend more than 4 hours per day sitting—especially all at once—your body is doing the following:
This cycle can be broken, but there’s a good reason you might be feeling a bit sore or achy at times. In fact, you might even feel your neck crack or pop, a twinge from time-to-time, or a hesitation to push on an exercise, workout, or sport because your body is ‘telling’ you something. I know what’s it’s telling you: you’re wound up, not old.
Follow these 3 steps to ‘unwind’ and give your body a chance to feel young and mobile again—it’s the simple movements we lose that change the game for us:
Find a sturdy surface—for example, by placing a bench next to a wall—and attempt to jump on and off of it. At first, you might start with it at about 6 inches off the ground, or not even have a bench to jump on or off. After a short time, the goal should be to jump on and off something that is 2-3 feet off the ground, without any trouble, spotting, or hesitation.
Our ability to get on/off the ground is one of the most complex movements to coordinate. By warming up with a short walk and then getting on/off the ground as an exercise, you are creating a surge of neurological potential to your muscles, and improving your balance, coordination, and muscle timing all at once.
There is a principle called the CREEP Principle, and it suggests that your body will respond to slow and steady stretch over time. By reaching as far as you can, whether while you’re bearing weight or not, your body is forced to adjust and stabilize. Then, reaching further, it strives to accomplish the same. The key factor is that each time, it is learning about a new position, recruiting muscles to protect you, and allowing you to go a bit further. Many times, there’s no physiological reason why you can’t move more easily; rather, your body has forgotten how. This step is about reminding your body how to move beyond its comfort zone with ease and confidence.
It’s best to go for a 5-20 minute walk before doing any of the above exercises, in order to be adequately warm and get the most benefit as fast as possible. Of course, if you have any pain or fear injury, do not exercise without consulting with your physician or physical therapist first.
When you move like a child again, and then you add resistance and intensity, your body grows, heals, and disrupts its pattern of breakdown; in actuality, you are reversing your health momentum by having fun and doing things that are natural, feel good, and offer you a mental break from your day.
p.s. Be sure to subscribe to Self-help Health so you don’t miss any future posts. Also check out my new website Evolution Made Easier and blog of the same name for more helpful information, tips, tools and resources.
Disclaimer: Please note that any information here is provided as a guideline only, and is not meant to substitute for the advice of your physician, nutritionist, trained healthcare practitioner, and/or inner guidance system. Always consult a professional before undertaking any change to your normal health routine.