Unless you’ve been Rip Van Winkle and slept for the past 20 years, you couldn’t have missed the increasing number of health messages appearing in the media. Quit smoking; drink responsibly; avoid fatty foods; eat more fibre; watch your cholesterol; eat two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables every day…
A recent study published by the University of Sydney has pointed to yet another health risk factor we need to add to this list (1). And it’s something we all do a lot of. Sitting!
So what’s wrong with sitting?
Well the first problem is we do an awful lot of it. Like me, you might be surprised to learn how much time you spend each day sitting. Think about it. You eat breakfast sitting down. You sit in the train, tram, bus or car to go to work. You sit working at your desk for eight hours before sitting again in the train, tram, bus or car to come home again. And at end of a long day you can’t wait to sit down to a hearty meal and spend some quality time sitting in front of the TV or curled up in a comfy chair with a good book. The reality is, many of us spend more time each day sitting than we do sleeping!
The study warning about the health risks of sitting is the first landmark finding to come out of the “45 and Up Study” (www.45andup.org.au ). The “45 and Up Study”, being run by the Sax Institute, is the largest study of healthy ageing ever undertaken in the Southern Hemisphere. Over 265,000 people were recruited into the study, around 10 % of the men and women aged 45 and over in the Australian state of New South Wales. The information collected from the “45 and Up Study” will be used by researchers and policy makers to help prevent disease and improve the standard of health care delivered to the Australian population as it ages.
The research yielded surprising results. People who sat for 11 hours or more a day had a 40 percent greater change of dying in the next three years compared to those who sat for less than four hours per day. And for the 5,405 people who died during the three years of the study, 7 percent of these deaths were attributed to the effects of prolonged sitting. Other surprising statistics and findings will doubtless come to light in the years ahead as the “45 and Up Study” continues.
So why is sitting so bad? After a meal your blood sugar rises. When you move the muscle contractions help your body to clear this blood sugar. When you sit for prolonged periods however, there are insufficient muscle contractions to reduce the blood sugar, so it can stay high for hours. Having high blood sugar for extended periods has been linked with a growing list of degenerative diseases like diabetes, autoimmunity, heart disease and cancer.
If sitting is so bad for you and we are spending more and more of our day doing it, this is a significant public health problem. So what’s to be done? The study found exercise helped reduce the risks but it didn’t counteract the negative effects of prolonged sitting. So do you need to spend even more time in the gym to make up for it? Is there some magic pill you can take? Fortunately the solution is remarkably simple. The study found that a light walk every twenty minutes or so was enough to lower blood glucose and counteract the effects of prolonged sitting. It didn’t seem to matter whether the walk was brisk or leisurely either, it was the movement itself that was important, not the intensity of it. So a brief walk around the office or around the block every half hour may not only be good for your posture and your concentration, it may help you live longer!
Until next time, stay happy and healthy.
(1) van der Ploeg, H.P.; Chey, T.; Korda, R.J.; Banks, E. and Bauman, A. Sitting time and all-cause mortality risk in 222,497 Australian adults. Arch. Intern. Med.; 172(6), 494-500, 2012.
Abstract available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22450936