The Dangers of Sitting

Five o'clock—almost time to go to the gym for your workout! Or, perhaps you rode your bike to the office? It's great to get regular exercise. But did you know that if you sit down for the rest of the day, your exercise program might not be enough to protect you from disease and disability in later life?

Most of us know that exercise is important for good health and optimum aging. If you take part in a regular activity program that includes at least 30 minutes each day of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise, good for you! Yet if you spend the rest of the day at your desk or on the couch, you may be endangering your health. Three studies from 2014 warn us to get out of our seats throughout the day:

1. Sitting Raises the Risk of Disability After Age 60

Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine researchers were surprised to discover that spending most of your day sitting is almost as dangerous as not exercising at all! They found that for people age 60 and older, every additional hour per day spent seated is linked to a 50 percent greater risk of becoming disabled. The researchers defined disability as limitations in being able to perform basic activities such as eating, dressing or bathing oneself, getting in and out of bed, and walking across a room.

"This is the first time we've shown sedentary behavior was related to increased disability, regardless of the amount of moderate exercise," said lead researcher Dorothy Dunlap, Ph.D. "It means older adults need to reduce the amount of time they spend sitting, whether in front of the TV or at the computer, regardless of their participation in moderate or vigorous activity."

2. Sitting Shortens Life

Cornell University researchers examined data on 93,000 postmenopausal senior women and found that those who spent less time sitting lived longer on average than those who were sedentary most of the day—even if the latter group exercised regularly. "The assumption has been that if you’re fit and physically active, that will protect you, even if you spend a huge amount of time sitting each day," said nutritional scientist Rebecca Seguin, Ph.D. "In fact, in doing so, you are far less protected from negative health effects of being sedentary than you realize."

The researchers pointed out that regular exercise, especially lifting weights and other strength-building activities, helps us retain strength and function. But that is not enough. More everyday movement on top of working out also is important for maintaining health. Says Seguin, "In general, a use it or lose it philosophy applies. We have a lot of modern conveniences and technologies that, while making us more efficient, also lead to decreased activity and diminished ability to do things."

3. Sitting Is Linked to Chronic Disease

Kansas State University researchers Sara Rosenkranz, Ph.D., and Richard Rosenkranz, Ph.D., report that standing during the day rather than sitting for hours reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, diabetes and other conditions that shorten our lives and impact our quality of life.

Why is it that merely exercising for a period during most days isn't enough? The researchers explain that when we sit for a prolonged period of time and don’t use muscles, this shuts off a molecule called lipoprotein lipase, which helps our bodies use fat and triglycerides for energy. Says Sara Rosenkranz, "We're basically telling our bodies to shut down the processes that help to stimulate metabolism throughout the day, and that is not good."

Lifestyle Changes to Cut Our Sitting Time

The three research teams all recognize that the realities of American life can make long periods of sitting all but inevitable for many. They suggest making small changes that benefit us over time.

People who work at desk jobs should get up periodically, even for short periods of time. The Kansas State University researchers suggest trying one of the new sit/stand desks, which can adjust up and down so employees can work standing up for part of the day.

What about older adults? Says Cornell's Rebecca Seguin, "If you're retired and have more idle time, find ways to move around inside and outside the house. Get up between TV programs, take breaks in computer and reading time and be conscious of prolonged sedentary time."

Northwestern University's Dr. Dunlop offers these suggestions:

  • Stand up when you talk on the phone or during a work meeting.
  • When you go to the grocery store or mall, park in a space farthest away.
  • When you get up for a drink of water, walk around the house or office.
  • Walk for short errands instead of taking the car.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator, if you are able.

Awareness is the first step. Pay attention to how long you spend sitting at your desk or on the couch at home. Many of the things we traditionally do while sitting can just as well be done while standing. So—make time to stand up for better health and healthier aging!

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.