You've no doubt heard the news by now: A car-commuting, desk-bound, TV-watching lifestyle can be harmful to your health. All the time we spend parked behind a steering wheel, slumped over a keyboard, or kicked back in front of the tube is linked to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even depression—to the point where experts have labeled this modern-day health epidemic the "sitting disease."
A growing body of research shows that people who spend many hours of the day glued to a seat die at an earlier age than those who sit less—even if those sitters exercise.
"Up until very recently, if you exercised for 60 minutes or more a day, you were considered physically active, case closed," says Travis Saunders, a Ph.D. student and certified exercise physiologist at the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
"Now a consistent body of emerging research suggests it is entirely possible to meet current physical activity guidelines while still being incredibly sedentary, and that sitting increases your risk of death and disease, even if you are getting plenty of physical activity. It's a bit like smoking. Smoking is bad for you even if you get lots of exercise. So is sitting too much."
Unfortunately, outside of regularly scheduled exercise sessions, active people sit just as much as their couch-potato peers.
In a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers reported that people spent an average of 64 hours a week sitting, 28 hours standing, and 11 hours milling about (nonexercise walking), whether or not they exercised the recommended 150 minutes a week.
That's more than nine hours a day of sitting, no matter how active they otherwise were.
"We were very surprised that even the highest level of exercise did not matter squat for reducing the time spent sitting," says study author Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., professor and director of the inactivity physiology department at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
In fact, regular exercisers may make less of an effort to move outside their designated workout time.
Research presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine from Illinois State University reports that people are about 30 percent less active overall on days when they exercise versus days they don't hit the road or the gym. Maybe they think they've worked out enough for one day. But experts say most people simply aren't running or walking or even just standing enough to counteract all the harm that can result from sitting eight or nine or 10 hours a day.
Spuds on therun
Unless you have a job that keeps you moving, most of your time is likely spent sitting. And that would make you an "active couch potato"—a term coined by Australian researcher Genevieve Healy, Ph.D., of the University of Queensland to describe exercisers who sit most of their day. If they aren't careful, she says, active couch potatoes face the same health risks as their completely inactive counterparts.
"Your body is designed to move," Hamilton says. "Sitting for an extended period of time causes your body to shut down at the metabolic level." When your muscles, especially certain leg muscles, are immobile, your circulation slows. So you use less of your blood sugar and you burn less fat, which increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.”
Indeed, a study of 3,757 women found that for every two hours they sat in a given work day, their risk for developing diabetes went up seven percent, which means their risk is 56 percent higher on days they sit for eight hours.
And a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology reports that a man who sits more than six hours a day has an 18 percent increased risk of dying from heart disease and a 7.8 percent increased chance of dying from diabetes compared with someone who sits for three hours or less a day. Although running does much good for you, Healy says, if you spend the rest of your waking hours sitting, those health benefits depreciate.
In a 12-year study of more than 17,000 Canadians, researchers found that the more time people spent sitting, the earlier they died—regardless of age, body weight, or how much they exercised.
Adding to the mounting evidence, Hamilton recently discovered that a key gene (called lipid phosphate phosphatase-1 or LPP1) that helps prevent blood clotting and inflammation to keep your cardiovascular system healthy is significantly suppressed when you sit for a few hours.
"The shocker was that LPP1 was not impacted by exercise if the muscles were inactive most of the day," Hamilton says. "Pretty scary to say that LPP1 is sensitive to sitting but resistant to exercise."
Heart disease and diabetes aren't the only health hazards active couch potatoes face. The American Institute for Cancer Research now links prolonged sitting with increased risk of both breast and colon cancers.
"Sitting time is emerging as a strong candidate for being a cancer risk factor in its own right," says Neville Owen, Ph.D., head of the Behavioral Epidemiology Laboratory at Australia's Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute. "Emerging evidence suggests that the longer you sit, the higher your risk.”
It also seems that exercising won't compensate for too much sitting. According to Alberta Health Services-Cancer Care in Canada, inactivity is linked to 49,000 cases of breast cancer, 43,000 cases of colon cancer, 37,200 cases of lung cancer, and 30,600 cases of prostate cancer a year.
As if that weren't enough to put you in a sad state, a 2013 survey of nearly 30,000 women found that those who sat nine or more hours a day were more likely to be depressed than those who sat fewer than six hours a day because prolonged sitting reduces circulation, causing fewer feel-good hormones to reach your brain.
Scared straight out of your chair?
Because the remedy is as simple as standing up and taking activity breaks.
Stuart McGill, Ph.D., director of the Spine Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Waterloo says that interrupting your sedentary time as often as possible and making frequent posture changes is important. "Even breaks as short as one minute can improve your health," he says.
Developing healthier habits will also improve your running performance, says Nikki Reiter, biomechanist with The Run S.M.A.R.T. Project.
The combination of going for a run and then parking your butt for the rest of the day (or vice versa) could be a recipe for injury. "The static sitting position can cause certain muscles to become tight or overstretched, neither of which is good for your running," she says. Even if you went for a really intense or long run, regular activity throughout the day will help your recovery. So stand up now: It's good for your body and mind.
Ways to avoid sitting all day
Prolonged sitting reduces circulation to the brain, hurting creativity and mood. Also, sedentary behavior has been linked to various forms of cancer, including breast, colon, lung, and prostate. Stop spending your whole work day sitting in a chair with these alternatives that allow for some movement throughout the day.
While sitting on a stability ball isn't enough of a core workout to score you six-pack abs, it promotes movement—and any extra movement you can squeeze into your day is good, says Douglas Lentz, M.S., C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the director of fitness and wellness for Summit Health in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
"You'll engage more muscles than you would in a traditional office chair because you'll move around more on a ball," he says. "You'll also likely stand up more often because you're not too comfortable and melting into a chair."
The ideal scenario is an adjustable workstation that allows you to work on your feet as well as your seat.
Why not just stand?
Because being on your feet all day isn't necessarily good for you either, says Alan Hedge, Ph.D., C.P.E., director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University. "Prolonged standing places an additional load on your heart and circulatory system, puts a strain on your legs and feet," he says. "It's best to alternate between the two."
With a little ingenuity, you can create a sitting/standing workstation. The simplest way to transform a traditional desk is to place boxes or books under your monitor and keyboard. A high-seat stool allows you to sit. For the best ergonomics, your keyboard should be at or slightly below elbow height, with your monitor at eye level. If you plan on standing for long periods of time, ergonomics expert Alan Hedge, Ph.D., recommends placing a footrest under your desk—propping one foot up will help you change positions and allow you to give each foot a break throughout the day. A padded mat can also reduce stress on your legs and feet.
Forget about standing all day in high heels or unsupportive shoes. "You need anti-fatigue footwear," Hedge says. (Running shoes, anyone?) If you're committed to a bigger investment, here are a few high-tech solutions.
Move your computer
Ergotron's WorkFit sits atop your desk and holds your keyboard and monitor so you can manually slide them up and down ($479, Ergotron).
Move your desk ErgoDepot sells several adjustable desks, which allow your entire work surface (computer, phone, coffee mug) to move up and down with you with the touch of a button (beginning at $559, Ergo Depot).
Move your Feet
Under-the-desk stair-steppers, cycles, or elliptical machines allow you to move as you type. Since these devices are portable, you can easily push them aside when you want a break (most cost less than $100, Amazon). Treadmill workstations are more of a commitment. The desk is affixed to a treadmill ($1,300, Ergo Depot).
Stretch it out
Sit all day? Work these exercises into your routine to help you feel—and run—your best.
Stand with feet together and arms raised straight in front of you at shoulder height, palms facing down. Imagine you are standing on a clock, facing 12. Step out with your right foot to the 2 o'clock position and lower down into a lunge, keeping your right knee aligned over the toes of the right foot. As you lunge, rotate your torso toward the right. Push off with the right foot; return to start, and repeat to the left, stepping out to the 10 o'clock position. That's one rep; do 10.
This exercise wakes up muscles in your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back to prep them for a workout
In your office
These stretches reduce stress on your spine and open tight hips—do them a few times a day:
Reach and extend. Stand up from your chair, kick off unsupportive shoes, and extend your arms overhead. Reach your palms toward the ceiling while bending backward and breathing deeply for several breaths.
Giant step stretch. Take a giant step back with your right foot and lower into a lunge position. Bend your left knee and tuck your pelvis. Raise your right arm out to the side and then extend it overhead. Lean slightly to the left from the waist. Hold 10 seconds. Repeat two or three times on each side.
On your feet!
Simple ways to spend more time upright
Use gadgets for good: Put alarms on your computer or phone to prompt you to stand up every 20 minutes while at work. Give yourself a daily goal, like getting in 5,000 (nonrunning) steps and download an app like Garmin Fit to track your activity level throughout the day.
Walk and talk
Skip the stodgy conference room and walk the halls with a coworker when you need to brainstorm ideas or discuss a project.
Refilling your bottle will require you to make more trips to the kitchen and the bathroom.
Chat them up
Take phone calls while standing up. If you have the space, pace around and stretch.
Cut back on TV and Web-surfing time. Watch the tube from your treadmill. Or do planks or foam roll during commercials.