Have you heard the saying ‘sitting is the new smoking’, recently?
It’s one of the many phrases going around to highlight the damage sitting down all day is doing to our bodies.
We all know the benefits of doing regular exercise. There are no secrets here, recent years has seen a massive influx of exercise knowledge.
But research is starting to come in that sitting down for too long each day is bad for your health. Regardless of what physical shape you’re in and how much exercise you do.
Studies have linked type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer, premature death, obesity, and being overweight with excessive sitting.
This is because sitting for long periods is believed to slow down the body’s metabolism. Affecting the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and break down body fat.
Many adults are spending more than seven hours a day seated. This number is typically higher the older the person is.
People are seated to watch TV, be in front of a computer, doing homework, and travelling. All behavior looked at as sedentary, but not including sleeping.
Experts in the medical field looking into the effects of sitting believe there is more to it. Leads are being followed as to why sitting or lying down is bad for our health. Along with what the effects are.
Why Excessive Sitting Is a Serious Health Risk
One of the most comprehensive studies on the subject to date, which involved around 800,000 people – found that people who sat for the longest periods had the following:
- 49% increase in death for any cause
- 90% increase in cardiovascular related death
- 147% increase in cardiovascular events
- 112% increase in the risk of diabetes
The results were so shocking that in 2011, the UK government issued some recommendations to reduce sitting times across different age groups.
The government released some guidelines on breaking up extended periods of sitting with short breaks of activity. In short they recommend taking a break from sitting at least every 30 minutes.
This is a recommendation across the board too. Even to people who exercise throughout the day. Because it’s the act of sitting that causes the health issues, not what you do to counteract it.
How Much Sitting Is Too Much?
If you want to minimize your risk of the health conditions associated with sitting for too long, the advice is very clear. Take a break every 30 minutes, stand up and take a walk.
The government guidelines recommend a minimum of 150 minutes exercise a week. As well as reducing the amount of time you spend sitting down as much as possible.
However, there is no clear guide on how many hours sitting down is too much. There is more research and testing being done into this area. But the evidence that’s already in is that it’s seriously damaging to your health to sit for hours at a time.
London Bus Drivers and Astronauts
The health risks of sitting is not a completely new revelation. Back in the 1950’s researchers found that bus drivers in London were twice as likely to have a heart attack compared to their conductor colleagues.
Our increasingly sedentary lifestyles has prompted an expansion on research in recent years.
It’s becoming evident that excessive periods of sitting slows down the metabolism. This affects our ability to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure.
In turn reducing the speed in which we metabolize fat. Which may lead to weaker bones and muscles, this area is still being researched.
You can look at sitting as your body slowly shutting down. With only a small amount of muscle activity, atrophy starts.
In the early 1970’s research was carried out on astronauts. Which showed a clear correlation between zero gravity, and accelerated muscle loss, a decrease in bone density, and aging.
Being seated for an excessive period is thought to stimulate the same effects. Albeit to a much lesser degree.
Limitations with Current Research
Current evidence is limited to observational studies. So far only highlighting the links between ill health and sitting. Not the direct cause.
Other factors limiting the current research includes not accounting for other factors that could have an impact on health. Such as smoking, poor diets, and alcohol consumption.
When astronauts return from space, even light walking and exercise reverses the negative effects bought on by being in a zero gravity environment.
Recommended Sitting Duration per Age Group
Here is some age-specific advice regarding how long a person should sit, as per the UK governmental guidelines.
Children under 5
Children under 5 spend most of their seated time either while travelling, watching TV, or sitting on their own playing.
The recommendation here is to limit the time they spend in these positions. There is strong evidence to support that fact that sedentary behavior in these formative years is strongly linked to obesity in later life.
While this is a challenge for most busy parents, the advice is supported by evidence that these early life experiences have a strong impact on the individual as an adult.
Tips to help reduce sitting time in under 5’s:
- Mix up carrying and sitting the child in pushchairs.
- Reduce time spent in walkers and other walking aids.
- Reduce time spent in front of the TV and play standing games.
Children and Teenagers
There is research to back up the assumption that children in households with several computers, game stations and TV’s spend more time sitting.
For individuals aged between 5 and 18 years of age. Reducing the time spent sitting means taking breaks to move around while at home, in the classroom, or travelling.
Tips to help reduce sitting time in 5 to 18 year olds:
- Implement a balance between activities and TV time.
- Agree and enforce a family wide limit on screen time.
- Make bedrooms screen-free rooms.
- Encourage all family members to take part in house chores.
- But children active toys, such as scooters, skateboards, and outdoor toys.
Adults between the ages of 19 and 64 years old are advised to reduce their time seated each day. With work, travel, and home life being the main areas of concern.
Tips to help reduce sitting time in 19 to 64 year olds:
- If travelling by train or bus opt to stand.
- Take stairs or escalators where possible.
- Set an alarm to remind you to get up and take a break every 30 minutes.
- Start using a standing desk.
- Watch less TV, instead find outdoors activities.
Older adults that are 65 and over are known to spend as long as 10 hours or more sitting down during the day.
There are some other factors not applicable to younger ages. Such as being retired, ill health, reduced mobility, there is still a need to minimize time spent sitting.
There is a higher risk of circulation and blood clotting issues with the elderly. Older adults need to break up their sitting duration as much as younger adults.
Tips to help reduce sitting time in over 64 year olds:
- Avoid long periods in front of the TV.
- Set timers to remind you to stand up and move around.
- Use the stairs as often as possible.
- Join clubs and social groups to keep active.
- Do your own housework if possible.
As you can garner from reading the above, extended periods of sitting is extremely dangerous to your health over a long period.
This isn’t scaremongering, or some new fitness fad. This is a real problem, with a great deal of evidence already collected.
The bad news is that most of us ‘have’ to spend a large part of the day sitting. If that applies to you I recommend you start standing every 30 minutes as recommended.
Sitting is a serious health risk. It’s important to take care of our health now, and have a healthier, longer life as a result.
Phil lives in England, UK, and has around 20 years experience as a professional life, career and executive coach. He started this blog to help others find and define their own self development journey. Blogging about a wide range of topics to help facilitate a better future.