Does sitting have the future?
For three days a week I stare at a computer screen for 8 straight hours. Besides the fact that I can’t read anything without reading glasses after a day’s work, there are more negative consequences of sitting all day. While seated my metabolism comes to a standstill and I can almost feel the internal fat stores around my organs grow. Lately, I have been a little worried: am I becoming one of those persons known as TOFI’s (thin on the outside, fat on the inside)? Despite my efforts to keep up a healthy lifestyle I spend the biggest parts of my working days in an unhealthy fashion. Me, unhealthy? Yes, because sitting is the new smoking and unhealthy by definition, even when you are practicing healthy habits next to it.
Recent research results show that total sitting time is strongly associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Because it is an independent effect, even an hour of intense physical activity during the morning or evening does not help to decrease this risk. The digital revolution has sent us on a course towards a more and more sedentary life. In popular media sitting is called the new smoking. The options to improve our daily activity patterns on a large scale either seem bizarre or are completely unrealistic. With the whole office on a treadmill behind your desk? Or what about quitting your job and taking up your own vegetable garden? Personally, I favor a working day of max. 5 hours: higher work efficiency, more available jobs, and more time and energy to spend on activities that are more fulfilling.
Personally, I favor a working day of max. 5 hours!
Since the 1950’s it is known that physical activity is good for your health. Work-related physical activity used to contribute an important share to daily energy expenditure. However, in modern industrialized societies physical activity at work as well as during leisure time has declined dramatically.1
Sitting is the new smoking
A growing body of literature shows that sedentary behavior (television watching, computer use, car driving, seated work and total sitting time) is associated with higher risks for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mortality.2, 3, 4 In addition, more and more studies find positive associations between sitting time and well established risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as waist circumference, blood glucose levels, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and triglyceride levels.5, 6, 7, 8
When your total daily sitting time is more than 10 hours, you have a 40 to 60 percent higher risk to die prematurely as compared to persons sitting less than 4 hours. That is about the same benefit you gain when you’d take up a moderate to intensive exercising program for 150 minutes per week.9
The effects of sitting and physical exercise are independent of each other. This is where the comparison with smoking stems from: lots of sitting is unhealthy, even when you run off your butt for an hour every day. So, it pays off to simultaneously sit less and be more physically active.10
Dutch people are active couch-potatoes
Why is all of this sitting so bad for us? The main idea is that a metabolic dysregulation occurs when we are not actively using our leg muscles enough, which are the largest group of muscles in our body. Our metabolism slows down, we burn less glucose and fat and our risk for diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease increases. In addition, there is some evidence that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk for some types of cancer and depression.10
The Netherlands belongs to one of Europe’s countries where people are spending the largest amount of time seated. Sitting time in Europe is distributed geographically. People in North-West Europe are sitting the most, whereas people in South-East Europe are sitting the least. Dutch people are seated for almost 7 hours per day! Luckily for us we do not belong to the worst-case scenario countries in which people are both sitting a lot and are being physically inactive. However, this does not imply that we could not reap the health benefits of spending less time seated.11
For an increasing number of people their daily physical activity consists of moving from one sitting location to another
The future as it is visualized in the fantastic animation film Wall-E is actually nothing else than a pimped version of reality. Although people are not moving around lying on hovercrafts, for a substantial portion of modern societies all physical activity that is being performed consists of moving from one sitting location to another. After (a skipped) breakfast at home we get up from the couch to drive our cars to the office where we are not seated only when grabbing a coffee. In the evening, after or without an hour of physical activity (active versus inactive couch potatoes), people start watching television for a couple of hours, often with something unhealthy to eat on the side and always with a smart phone in hand. Just as portrayed in Wall-E, our lives are more and more taking place in a virtual world.
Stand-up desks and treadmill desks at the office?
What can we do against the forces that are making us sit more and more? Regularly breaking up sitting time could be a way of maintaining an active metabolism. Dunstan et al. showed that postprandial glucose and insulin levels in obese persons could be improved by alternating 20 minutes of sitting with 2 minute intervals of moderate to intensive walking.12 Google and Yahoo have already equipped their offices with adjustable sit-stand desks and there are desks available that are equipped with treadmills.9
What is the future going to bring us? I don’t think that it is very probable that a lot of persons will be getting up from their lazy chairs at the office to race around the hallways every twenty minutes. This is something more for the health freaks in our midst. And what about all the ladies at the office wearing high heels? Will they make it through the day standing? The increasingly sedentary human, is this the inevitable future?
For now you’d better make sure that you activate your leg muscles every thirty minutes
The digital revolution has just begun; it is very likely that average daily sitting time will increase strongly worldwide. And there’s not that much we can really do about it. Quitting our desk jobs and taking up a more physically demanding alternative is simply impossible at a large scale. One day our consciousness might immerse completely in a virtual world, but until that day you’d better make sure you keep those leg muscles activated throughout the day. Therefore, to underscore the negative health effects of sitting, please take a careful look at the amazing infographic displayed below.
- Ezzati M, Riboli E. Behavioral and dietary risk factors for noncommunicable diseases. N Engl J Med. 2013 Sep 5;369(10):954-64. doi: 10.1056/NEJMra1203528
- Hu FB, Li TY, Colditz GA et al. Television watching and other sedentary behaviors in relation to risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus in women. JAMA 2003;289(14):1785–1791.
- Matthews CE, George SM, Moore SC et al. Amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors and cause-specific mortality in US adults. Am J Clin Nutr 2012;95(2):437–445.
- van der Ploeg HP, Chey T, Korda R et al. Sitting time and all-cause mortality risk in 222,497 Australian adults. Arch Intern Med 2012; 172(6):494–500.
- Healy GN, Dunstan DW, Salmon JO et al. Television time and continuous metabolic risk in physically active adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2008;40(4):639–645.
- Pinto Pereira SM, Ki M, Power C. Sedentary behaviour and biomarkers for cardiovascular disease and diabetes in mid-life: the role of television-viewing and sitting at work. PLoS One 2012; 7(2):e31132.http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0031132.
- Thorp AA, Healy GN, Owen N et al. Deleterious associations of sitting time and television viewing time with cardiometabolic risk biomarkers: Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle (AusDiab) study 2004–2005. Diabetes Care 2010;33(2):327–334.
- Chau JY, et al. Cross-sectional associations of total sitting and leisure screen time with cardiometabolic risk in adults. Results from the HUNT Study, Norway. J Sci Med Sport (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2013.03.004
- NRC Handelsblad van zaterdag 7 september 2013 op pagina 4 & 5
- Sitting is the new smoking – even for runners http://www.runnersworld.com/health/sitting-is-the-new-smoking-even-for-runners?page=single
- Bennie JA, Chau JY, van der Ploeg HP, Stamatakis E, Do A, Bauman A. The prevalence and correlates of sitting in European adults – a comparison of 32 Eurobarometer-participating countries. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2013 Sep 11;10(1):107.
- Dunstan DW, Kingwell BA, Larsen R, Healy GN, Cerin E, Hamilton MT, Shaw JE, Bertovic DA, Zimmet PZ, Salmon J, Owen N. Breaking up prolonged sitting reduces postprandial glucose and insulin responses. Diabetes Care. 2012 May;35(5):976-83. doi: 10.2337/dc11-1931.