Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Trouble with Chairs: How Doing Nothing is Doing You Harm

Living a healthy lifestyle is as difficult as it is important. We saw in our discussion of Epigenetics that the bad decisions we make about our health today can have consequences for not only ourselves, but generations of our offspring. Eating right and exercising regularly are the two crucial things that everyone knows to do to protect their health; however, recent research is beginning to realize that there may be a third factor that is just as important: sitting.


A paper published by the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that if you spend too much time with your feet up, your lifespan may be headed down (Katzmarzyk et al., 2008). The study included over 17,000 Canadians between the ages of 18 and 90 and compared overall mortality with a number of lifestyle factors. The researchers determined that even after controlling for obvious factors like age, diet, and exercise, time spent sitting was correlated with a significantly increased risk of death from any cause.


That is a complicated thought so let’s take a second to think about it. When researchers “control” for something they are trying to rule it out as a cause of some effect. In this case when the researchers control for exercise, for example, they are basically comparing their findings across groups of people who exercise similar amounts. Ditto for diet and age. Even after doing this the effects they found were significant. That means that even if you go for an hour long run after sitting behind a desk at work for 8 hours, you are still at an elevated risk of death compared with a mail carrier, for example.

Other research has linked excess sitting to colon cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, and chronic chest pain. To understate things dramatically: this is bad news. We live in a world that is designed to promote sitting. Buses and trains are basically mobile rooms full of chairs. We sit to eat, we sit to work, we sit to read about how bad sitting is for us (caught you). So what can we do?


Doctors have begun taking this research to heart and have offered several recommendations. First, if you have a job that requires you to sit all day, use your time away from work to be more active. Stand while you watch TV, stand while you eat dinner, go for a walk before breakfast. Much of the problem comes from the fact that when we sit, our muscles don’t contract. The minor contractions that go along with shifting from one foot to the other or moving things around with our arms help our bodies to metabolize and remove fats and sugars. When we sit, those processes shut down and we store harmful waste products in our bodies. The science has even specifically shown that sitting all day increases fat storage around the middle of your body… and beach season isn’t far off.


If you’re the especially wacky type, Amazon offers a plethora of stand-up work station options. You can buy the exercise bike with the laptop tray. There are plenty of desks with the work platform at chest height. You can even buy a treadmill complete with a desk, file sorter, and pen organizer. In his book  Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, A.J. Jacobs brags that he walked over 1000 miles (1,600 km) while doing his writing.


Clearly not all of us are cut out for that sort of dramatic undertaking, but we can do some of the little things that the experts recommend. Take a 5 or 10 minute break once an hour to get up and walk around your office. Instead of sitting in a boardroom for a meeting, invite your coworkers to go for a walk while you talk about your next project. An evening stroll after dinner won’t only prolong your life, it might make you enjoy it a little more too.


Usually when bad news makes its way down the scientific grapevine we need to make big changes to our lives if we want to keep enjoying them. Working out is tough and there are days when the thought of going to the gym is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. Walking by a pizzeria, smelling the delicious aromas and not going in for a slice is an act of willpower worthy of a medal. By comparison, a little extra standing isn’t such a big deal. Besides, if anyone tries to judge you for it, you are already in position to look down your nose at them. And, in case you were wondering, yes researching this article scared me into action myself. I now spend 6 of my 8 working hours a day standing at this wonderful monstrosity trying to avoid an early grave:

If a lazy blogger can do this, what's your excuse?