For decades, there has been an effort to get Americans to stop smoking. It was nearly 50 years ago when Alton Ochsner identified that smoking was related to lung cancer. Since then, there have been a number of other diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, other cancers and perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease that are associated with smoking. As a result, the medical association has worked hard to reduce the number of people who smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco or smoke cigars. Now, we have identified that sitting is the new smoking! We have evidence that excess sitting has been linked to a host of health problems. The experts have concluded that sitting is bad for our health and may even shorten our life expectancy.
Excellent medical researchers have reported that sitting for long hours is linked to: deterioration in mental health, a higher risk of heart disease, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol levels, increased risk of cancer and a higher risk of early disability. There is also an association between excess sitting and the metabolic syndrome – a condition that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels.
One study compared adults who spent less than two hours a day in front of the TV or other screen-based entertainment with those who logged more than four hours a day of recreational screen time. Those with greater screen time had:
• Nearly 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause
• About a 125 percent increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain (angina) or heart attack
The explanation for the relationship between sitting and all of these chronic diseases has not been fully elucidated. One possibility is that sitting for a long time causes muscles to burn less fat and blood to flow more sluggishly. Both can increase the risk of heart disease and other problems. Also, prolonged sitting may cause us to eat more than we should, leading to weight gain.
What do the experts advise? Although experts aren’t sure how often you need to get up, they suggest getting up about every 30 minutes, if possible.
Sitting in front of the TV isn’t the only concern. Any extended sitting – such as behind a desk at work or behind the wheel – can be harmful. What’s more, spending a few hours a week at the gym or otherwise engaged in moderate or vigorous activity doesn’t seem to significantly offset the risk.
The solution seems to be less sitting and more moving overall. You might start by simply standing rather than sitting whenever you have the chance or think about ways to walk while you work. For example:
• Stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch.
• If you work at a desk for long periods of time, try a standing desk – or improvise with a high table or counter.
• Conduct meetings walking with your colleagues rather than gathering in a conference room and sitting down for meetings.
• Position your work surface above a treadmill – with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk – so that you can be in motion throughout the day.
• Give yourself reminders to sit less. At home, consider a TV commercial your signal to get out of your chair, briefly. At work, use a smaller coffee cup or glass so your trips for refills will be more frequent.
• One technique I use is to take a mid-morning and mid-afternoon “stair break”. At that time, I take the elevator down six flights and walk up six flights of stairs. This increases my heart rate, increases my respiratory rate and provides me with ample energy equivalent to a cup of coffee.
The impact of movement, even leisurely movement, can be significant. For starters, you’ll burn more calories. This might lead to weight loss and increased energy. Even better, the muscle activity needed for standing and other movement seems to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body. When you sit, these processes go into hibernation and your health risks increase. When you’re standing or actively moving, you jump start the processes and improve your metabolism and your well-being.
Bottom Line: As a society, we spend far too much time sitting and not enough time moving. Sitting for long periods of time can be hazardous to your health and even your longevity. So, if you have a sedentary job, it is no longer an excuse that you can’t get moving. Stand up and walk around. You will feel better and you will have better health.
Dr. Neil Baum is a urologist at Touro Infirmary and can be reached at 504 891 8454 or through his website, www.neilbaum.com.