In case you haven’t heard, the new buzz-phrase going around health promotion circles is “sitting is the new smoking.”
At first blush, this may sound a tad odd. What’s one got to do with the other? It’s simple, really. When you think about it, both are habits that are within our physical capabilities to stop. And – here’s where it gets weird – both are found to be quite harmful to our health.
That invitation to take a seat and rest your feet? Pass on it.
From Australia to Ireland to the United States, a new, robust body of clinical research supports the public-health message that being sedentary by, say, parking your duff at the cube for an honest day’s wage, is failing our long-term health. Sitting eight hours daily can shave years off your life. (By the way, Webster’s definition of “sedentary” includes “fixed to one spot, as a barnacle.”)
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Like smoking, cardiovascular experts say, the decision to sit is our own. It’s preventable. It’s deliberate. We can quit it.
Or can we? We’ve given up our agrarian lifestyles, have fewer sustainable, small-business opportunities to keep us astir tending shop, and we’ve put lots more women in the workforce.
That last one means that the gap between life spans of men and women – where women long held the edge in the longevity game – is shrinking, too.
What else is shrinking? Our smarts, perhaps.
Researchers say brain function slows as we sit for longer periods, making our thought processes a little fuzzier. Without the added blood flow, oxygen and beneficial mood-enhancing chemicals that movement brings, our bulbs burn a little dimmer.
A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health said sedentary behavior could increase the odds that, after age 60, we’ll face a 46 percent greater probability of suffering some level of disability in performing ordinary daily skills such as feeding ourselves and moving around without mishap. That could hinder efforts to stay independent.
Other hazards of too much sitting include the risk of cardiovascular disease. Couch spuds face twice the risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and more fatty acids to clog the heart.
Sitting too long may coax the pancreas to produce too much insulin, leading to higher risks of diabetes. And that excess insulin may just turn out to be a cancer cell’s best friend, allowing for more cell growth.
Conversely, getting up and exercising rigorously boosts our natural antioxidants that kill cell-damaging free radicals leading to specific cancers, such as endometrial, breast and colon carsinomas, said Dr. Daniel Parker, a UC Davis associate professor of sports medicine who’s near-religious about cycling or running five to six days a week.
Parker says we shouldn’t believe that cockamamie advice that a half-hour daily stroll around the block is enough to meet our bodies’ needs. Rather, for exercise to truly make a difference, he said adults need at least 150 minutes a week of sweaty, can’t-speak-a-full-sentence-before-we-run-out-of-breath cardio-activity. For kids, it’s 60 minutes weekly, Parker says.
Interestingly enough, Parker advises parents of kids in organized sports to observe offspring closely. Though the essentials of sports involve high-intensity activity, most team players spend significant time benched, standing on the sidelines or waiting for the ball to come to them.
“As for ‘sitting is the new smoking,’ that’s new to me, but it certainly resonates really well with what’s happening in your sitting body,” Parker said during a break from working with citizen-athletes in UC Davis’ Human Performance Lab. “On a molecular level, your cells are always turning over; new cells are always being created. Even on that small of a scale, your body’s always changing. Exercise is an important part of helping regenerate cells.”
In other words, Parker says, if we stop moving, we stop providing cells with the energy, oxygen and blood flow needed for regeneration. Then, well, eventually, “If you’re simply not moving, you’re dead,” he said. Hypothetically, at least.
Other hazards associated with sitting include the risk of developing deep-vein thrombosis, varicose veins and swollen ankles, as fluid gathers in our lower legs while we are chair-bound. Bones get softer when not bearing the weight of the body, the spine could begin to curve, and abs can get all squishy.
The Aussies found that time spent sitting during the weekend is actually more detrimental to our health than weekday sitting. But they couldn’t quite put their fingers on why that’s the case.
The study published in the Physical Activity Journal merely notes: “A sedentary lifestyle is associated with a variety of poor health outcomes, including increased incident for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mortality.”
Another Australian study published in BMJ Open this year had researchers from the University of Tasmania concluding that sitting leads to stiffening of the arteries. That’s a bad deal for heart health.
A separate collaboration of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Harvard School of Public Health, Rush University Medical Center and Feinberg Medical School at Northwestern University collected data from those of us who spend nearly nine waking hours a day being sedentary.
The study subjects who spent the most hours lounging around tended to be older men with little wealth who smoke and have chronic illness.
Resources such as the American Heart Association offer advice on how to reverse a sedentary lifestyle with tips that include swimming, walking, gardening, even housekeeping – the latter being what blessed women with longer lives before they migrated to desk jobs.
More-taxing activities are nearer and dearer to the hearts of cardiologists. Another study published Aug. 5 in the American Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at the benefits of exercise, namely running.
Runners may add another three years to their lives, heart doctors say, compared to those of us who take life at a turtle’s pace.
Even a slow-ish run for just five to 10 minutes a day will bring benefits, they say.
But if we really want to achieve, say, a 28 percent lower overall risk of death, we’ll run for a minimum of 30 minutes to 60 minutes each week.
Runners also see a 58 percent reduced risk of death from heart disease, compared with non-runners.
As for that having-to-sit-at-the-office thing? Health experts recommend taking breaks to walk every 45 minutes, holding “walking meetings” and installing treadmill desks or standing desks with computer screens at eye level (just standing can burn off 40 more calories an hour).
And if you just can’t possibly miss that new episode of “Game of Thrones,” stand up and move like a warrior while watching. You’ll likely outlive the villains.