Stand up, walk around, and cut down on inflammation

Prolonged sitting is associated with increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality.[1, 2] This is troubling, since most of us sit for most of the day. Since 1950, there has been an 83% increase in sedentary jobs.[3] Many of us sit all day while we work, and then go home and sit for most of the evening – at the dinner table, at the computer, and on the couch.

Photo of computer desk and chair

Just like exercise, prolonged sitting has distinct physiological effects. But unlike exercise, sitting has unhealthy effects. After just a few days of bed rest, increased insulin resistance and unfavorable vascular changes can be detected in healthy subjects.[4]

Exercise is one effective way to counteract these effects, but what about the rest of our day? If we spend an hour, or even two, exercising vigorously each day, is that enough to counteract the effects of the 8-12 hours we may spend sitting down? It turns out that the answer is no. Of course, exercise is beneficial – regular exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and several cancers. However, prolonged sitting has been linked to increased risk of death regardless of the amount of exercise activity performed.[5]

In addition to exercising daily, we also need to increase our non-exercise physical activity. Non-exercise physical activity, though its intensity is low, makes a significant contribution to our overall calorie expenditure. In fact, in people who do not exercise regularly, 90% of caloric expenditure is on standing, non-exercise movement. [6] We can increase non-exercise physical activity simply by taking frequent breaks from sitting. When we are sitting our muscles are idle, but once we stand up, there is measurable activity in the large muscles of our legs (graphically represented in Figure 3A here) – the body is physically active when we are standing.[6]

In one study, participants wore accelerometers, devices that keep track of physical activity intensity, to track their total quantity and sedentary time and number of interruptions (breaks) in sedentary time. Prolonged sitting was associated with larger waist circumference and higher C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) levels. But interruptions in sedentary time made a difference – regardless of the amount of time spent sitting, a greater number of interruptions in sedentary time was associated with smaller waist circumference and lower C-reactive protein.[7, 8]

Frequent but short bouts of non-exercise activity, like standing up from your desk to stretch, taking a quick walk around the office, standing up while taking a phone call, walking to a colleague’s office instead of sending an email, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator contribute to increasing the number of interruptions in our sedentary time.

Unfortunately, sedentary jobs are the norm, but we can use exercise and frequent breaks from sitting to help us counteract the unhealthy effects of our sedentary days.

 

 

References:

1. van Uffelen, J.G., et al., Occupational sitting and health risks: a systematic review. Am J Prev Med, 2010. 39(4): p. 379-88.
2. Manson, J.E., et al., Walking compared with vigorous exercise for the prevention of cardiovascular events in women. The New England journal of medicine, 2002. 347(10): p. 716-25.
3. The Price of Inactivity. American Heart Association.
4. Hamburg, N.M., et al., Physical inactivity rapidly induces insulin resistance and microvascular dysfunction in healthy volunteers. Arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology, 2007. 27(12): p. 2650-6.
5. Patel, A.V., et al., Leisure time spent sitting in relation to total mortality in a prospective cohort of US adults. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2010. 172(4): p. 419-29.
6. Hamilton, M.T., D.G. Hamilton, and T.W. Zderic, Role of low energy expenditure and sitting in obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Diabetes, 2007. 56(11): p. 2655-67.
7. Healy, G.N., et al., Sedentary time and cardio-metabolic biomarkers in US adults: NHANES 2003-06. European heart journal, 2011.
8. European Society of Cardiology: More breaks from sitting are good for waistlines and hearts. ScienceDaily, 2011.

 

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Comments (12) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Mia Z - February 16, 2011 10:47 AM

I work as a software developer and a lot of my colleagues don't budge from their chairs all day. Sometimes I worry I'll appear to be less hardworking in comparison, since I do try to stand up and walk around every couple of hours, but hey... I'm almost getting used to being outside the norm by now.

Wendy (Healthy Girl's Kitchen) - February 16, 2011 10:48 AM

Fantastic suggestions! I'm going to make a loop around my office right now!

Sarah - February 16, 2011 2:52 PM

Thanks for this article, I had heard a bit about this research but none of the specifics. Looks like it's time to learn to love standing!

Matt Stone - February 16, 2011 4:46 PM

Nice post. I was actually going to do a video showing the hilarious setup I have going in my "office" right now. I have a huge stack of books underneath my laptop so that I can do all my computer work from a standing position. It is amazing what a difference it makes. When standing a lot I find I just want to move around a lot more too. I guess they make standing desks now. That would be great - especially if I need to look up something in the books my laptop is piled up on!

Denise D'Agostino - February 16, 2011 10:48 PM

Thank you for this post!!! I feel like I'm going to die at my desk! No matter how much pilates or yoga I do at night it still feels terrible to sit all day. Thank you for addressing this. How do you feel about those exercise ball chairs?

StephenMarkTurner - February 17, 2011 8:46 AM

I used to get up about every 15 minutes and take a walk around the office. Then I got laid off.

Not sure if that's causation or just simple association ;-).

Cheers, Steve

Kat - February 17, 2011 10:27 AM

This is exactly why I have a treadmill desk.

Like Mia, I'm chained to my desk for most of my waking hours. About six months ago, I decided to convert all the desks in the office to treadmill desks and we all now walk at about 1-2 mph as we work on the computer. At that pace, we end up walking about two marathons per week. We don't sweat and we pretty much forget that we're even moving after a while. We no longer sit or stand motionless at all anymore - unless we need to write something long-hand, which is difficult when you're moving.

I cannot recommend this arrangement enough! Whether you build your own or buy from one of the two or three companies that have begun to commercially produce them is up to you and your wallet.

I've tried Signature and Treaddesk. Signature's product is flimsy and the treadmill is uncomfortable. Treaddesks's product is superior and they can customize the desk (which is sit to stand on hydraulic lifts in the legs). Also, Signature is very difficult to work with as they are unresponsive and it was like pulling teeth to get them to deliver the desk once we paid for it.

Mia, if you can swing it, this may be a way for you to appear as hard working as you are and still move around.


Matt, try to put that arrangement over a treadmill and the difference will amaze you. I find sStanding is less comfortable than walking at a slow pace. Blood starts to pool and my lower back gets tight standing. Walking slowly takes care of that.

Ann - February 17, 2011 1:56 PM

Great article - thank you!
I have a related question, in case anyone might have an answer. I too workout once a day and do a lot of sitting at my desk (with added commute time my sit-down time totals 10 hours a day). I have just started running 4-5 miles a day and wonder if the advice to take rest days applies if I have major periods of sitting. I could take rest days and do yoga or something else, but since I have been a nutritarian, I have fallen in love with running. Any toughts? Thanks in advance!

Fat Fudge - February 17, 2011 4:46 PM

I walk for one hour on my lunch break. It feels good to be outside and breathe fresh air!

Eileen - February 18, 2011 11:49 AM

I cannot agree enough with the purpose of this article. Having been a bartender for the last 10 years, I am so grateful to have the job in comparison to what I did prior to this which was a series of office/customer service jobs. I remember the days of being chained to the desk and the enjoyment I got out of just walking to the restroom every so often. With the job I have now I am on my feet walking back and forth for 8 hours straight. I rarely have a chance to sit and when I do, I am usually up and moving within a couple of minutes. I feel this gives me a great health advantage.

Now that I have adopted the ETL lifestyle, I feel restless if I sit for long periods of time, like on my days off or on long car rides. I enjoy standing, walking, running, and stair climbing as well as sweeping and vacuuming becuase I am conscience of the health benefits I get from just moving. Engaging the body keeps the mind and spirit alive and well.

Heather - March 8, 2011 4:03 PM

They key is to stand as much as possible. I've ran across the most helpful website (http://juststand.org) that informs people about sitting disease, and tips on how to stand more. I also have switched to a standing desk - WorkFit-S. My work life has changed dramatically, along with my productivity :-)

Averyl - March 13, 2011 5:31 PM

Great post.

Housework is a great way to stay moving. Rather than looking down upon it as insulting to my intelligence I see it as a smart way to stay in shape, especially during the long winters in my state (Maine.)

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