Are You Sitting Yourself To Death?
Saturday, December 8, 2012
LifeTime WeightLoss in Activity, Movement, Sleep, Stress, Tom Nikkola

Many of the blog posts on this site relate to food and its effects on long-term health and weight management. When most people think of managing their weight, it’s usually the first thing that comes to mind. However, there’s more to managing weight than food alone. Lifestyle choices also play into our long-term health outcomes and can lead to unwanted weight gain.

Exercise certainly helps in improving health. Managing stress and getting enough sleep is important too. However, there’s one thing the average person does more than anything else throughout the day that results in a significantly increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, weight gain and many other ailments. In fact, most people spend the majority of their waking time doing this. What is this deadly activity? Sitting!

Before you continue reading, whatever you’re reading this blog post on – a desktop computer, laptop, phone or tablet – stand up and read this instead of sitting. You should be able to get through this article without needing to sit down. It just doesn’t seem right to have you read this article about the detriments of sitting while you’re sitting down.


For most people, the majority of their sitting time is while at work. Jobs today involve a significant amount of desk time, sitting in front of computers or in meetings. In fact, I though it would be ironic to write an article about how bad sitting is while  actually sitting in front of my computer and typing away. Fortunately, I’m working on this article over the weekend from home, and my wife rigged our treadmill up with a makeshift laptop station. I’m actually walking at three miles an hour while I type. So I’m typing while I write, and hopefully you’re at least reading this while you stand. Maybe you’re even reading while walking on a treadmill.

Over the past couple decades, television time has taken the blame for being a significant cause being sedentary. However, the majority of sedentary time is the result of peoples’ jobs and their commutes to and from their jobs, not what they do during leisure time. Because peoples’ minds are usually busy during the day, when asked about their level of activity, they often think they’re more active than they really are.

As for television, there doesn’t seem to be a relation between time spent watching TV and total time spent being sedentary. Those who watch the most TV aren’t necessarily the most sedentary, and those who watch little to no television are not necessarily more active than those who watch a lot of television.[i] Adjusting the amount of time you spend being sedentary will likely require a shift in your work habits more than it will require a change of habits during your leisure time.

After reading some recent studies on being sedentary, I wanted to take an honest look at what my typical week looked like. I workout five to six days a week, with most workouts consisting of primarily strength training. I do get in a bike ride on the weekends or do a cardio session. I would have expected I’d be more active than the average person, but I was dismayed when I actually looked at how inactive my average week was.

I began tracking my activity with a Fitbit accelerometer. I was shocked to see how few steps I took on an average day. With workouts, I averaged only around 5000 steps. Without workouts, I found myself ending the day with less than 3000 steps. Health and fitness experts recommend a target of at least 10,000 steps per day and I was failing miserably. The good news is I’d become aware. After a week of seeing where I was at, I set my 10,000 step goal and have found a way every day since to meet or exceed my 10,000 steps before going to bed. Tracking my daily activity dramatically changed my behavior, something we’ll look at a little later.

If you think your level of activity needs to be vigorous in order to be beneficial, rest assured, that’s not always the case. Three to five higher-intensity exercise sessions have their benefit, but the rest of the day, standing instead of sitting, or doing a little extra walking can be very beneficial.

General guidelines state that posture should be adjusted a minimum of every 30 minutes, which could mean spending 30 minutes sitting and then the next 30 minutes standing at your work station. A study looking at the effects of interrupting sitting with just a few minutes of light activity, every 20 minutes showed that people who moved for just a few minutes every 20 minutes or so had lower insulin and glucose levels. Lower insulin and glucose means the body burns fat better and is better able to control blood sugar levels, which can be toxic to the body’s cells.

For the average person, sitting time is usually in excess of ten hours. Of course, this doesn’t include sleep time, which leaves little time left over for much activity. So what happens when we sit so much?

Effect of Sitting

Being sedentary is associated with a:

When your muscles and cardiovascular system go without use, even for short periods of time, they become less effective. That’s why an interruption every 20 minutes to do something active for a few minutes, even walking around your office building, can have a positive effect on glucose and insulin levels and help move oxygen throughout your system. In addition, chronic sitting changes the range of motion of your shoulders, back, hips hamstrings and other muscles. Over time, it can lead to poor posture, back and knee problems and decreased muscular function.

Exercise and Sitting

Exercise has an important role in a healthy way of life, but does it offset the effects of being sedentary? Researchers recently investigated the effects of exercise and looked at how much time female exercises spent sitting outside their workouts compared to those who didn’t exercise.[iii]

The researchers expected one of three outcomes from this study. They expected those who exercise regularly would:

In the end, there was not a significant difference in the total time people were sedentary whether they exercised or not. This is a very important thing for people to understand. Exercise is very good for you, but if you don’t make it a point to be active throughout the rest of the day, you may succumb to some of the same negative effects non-exercisers do.

Unless you train as a professional athlete, an hour’s workout is not the only activity you should be focused on in order to avoid the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

Try some of the following ideas to increase your level of activity throughout the day.

Tips for Increasing Activity Time

1. Wear an Activity Monitor

Just as the Zeo can be helpful for holding you accountable to sleep, wearing an activity monitor like the Fitbit or Motoactv can make you aware of your level of activity throughout the day. Personally, since wearing a Fitbit, I’ve made it a point to hit at least 10,000 steps each day. If that means I have to walk on the treadmill after dinner to make it happen, I do so.

2. Look for Opportunities to Be Active

If you have a wireless headset, take your phone calls standing up. Prop up your computer so while working you can stand up. If you don’t need to be taking notes while meeting with a co-worker, have your meeting while you walk around the campus of your office.

3. Start a Trend

My group has talked about morning and afternoon GOYA time. I’ll let you figure out what it stands for, but just five minutes of walking around the various floors of our office building can help. Is there something similar you can do? If you work from home or aren’t working, can you take two brief walks in addition to what you’re already doing? Ask friends and co-workers to join in. You’ll all feel better and may have some time for sharing ideas.

4. Ask About Changes at Work

Many companies today offer sitting/standing desks, with desks that rise and lower with a touch of a button. Desktop, adjustable computer stations, are a more cost-effective alternative. Ergo Desktop is one such unit, which sits on your desk and can be easily adjusted for sitting and standing (If you have experience with any of these, please share in the comments section at the bottom).

Even better, some companies have started adding work stations for employees to share with a built-in treadmill. One affordable version is called the TrekDesk, which is designed to work with most treadmills. If weather permits, consider taking some of your meetings outdoors so you can walk and talk.  

5. Spend a little extra time being active at night

Just a twenty minute walk to end the day can be a great way to clear your mind and lower stress levels before getting ready for bed. Try going for a short walk or bike ride after dinner. Remember, it’s not about getting in an extra workout. The goal is just to get in a little more activity.

There’s no doubt that we need to move more throughout the day. This movement doesn’t take the place of a workout, but could play an important role in our long-term health. There’s something to be said about the importance of training when you train and working when you work. You can easily add more activity to your day while you do desk work. On the flip-side, you won’t get as much out of your workouts if you try to bring your work along with you. For your three to five hours a week, keep that time focused on your training. For all the other hours you work, think about how you could introduce some light activity into your day.

I started this article by saying I was going to walk and type. I didn’t look at it as a workout, but just a way to get some extra steps in without affecting how efficiently I could be in creating my blog post. How much of an effect did it have? In putting together my first draft, I walked for 95 minutes and covered a distance of 4.6 miles. Not bad. Especially since this is something I could have easily done sitting down and added another hour and a half to my sedentary time for the day instead. Get up, stand up, move around. Let your body do what it was designed for.

Share thoughts, post questions and comments below.

Written by Tom Nikkola – Senior Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

[i] Thorp AA, Healy GN, Winkler E, et al. Prolonged sedentary time and physical activity in workplace and non-work contexts: a cross-sectional study of office, customer service and call centre employees. Int J Behav Nut Phys Act. 2012;9:128 doi:10.1186/1479-5868-9-128

[ii] Wilmot EG, Edwardson CL, Achana FA, et al. Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetologia. 2012;55:2895-2905

[iii] Craft LL, Zderic TW, Gapstur SM, et al. Evidence that women meeting physical activity guidelines do not sit less: An observational inclinometry study. Int J Behav Nut Phys Act. 2012;9:112

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