Quit the sit

by gabeatkinson / 24 November, 2012
To the list of woes blamed on too much sitting, add death.

There is fresh evidence that sitting around all day is not only bad for the waistline and lower back but can also kill us. Sitting’s sometimes fatal consequences are highlighted in research from the University of Leicester, which combined the results of 18 studies involving nearly 800,000 people. The good news is that doing something about it is as simple as getting out of your chair.

The Leicester researchers found the average adult spends 50-70% of his or her time sitting, and that remaining so for a prolonged time doubled the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It didn’t make any difference whether people exercised regularly or not. “Sedentary research” is a newish area of work that is drawing attention to the health implications of spending too much time on our backsides. “It’s a whole-of-day approach in relation to physical activity promotion,” says David Dunstan of Melbourne’s Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute, one of the leading researchers in the area. “It’s not just about getting people to do 30 minutes or an hour’s exercise each day; we need be thinking about the 16 hours in between.”

Researchers are getting a better understanding of the metabolic implications of our sedentary lives. “The striking characteristic of sitting is the absence of musculature contraction,” says Dunstan. “Our body is supported by the chair, the big muscles of the lower limbs are completely inactive. But just the transition from sitting to standing leads to significant musculatory contraction – you have to do that to stop yourself from falling over. “As you move into walking, you enhance that contraction even more, and it increases incrementally as you move into brisk walking and into jogging.”

Long periods without muscle contraction have been shown to result in increased blood glucose, a reduction in the level of good cholesterol and an increased level of bad cholesterol – all changes associated with obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Dunstan has been looking at ways of combating the effects of too much sitting. For a study published earlier this year, he and colleagues took 19 overweight people and measured the way their bodies responded to a fatty high-glucose meal. In the first experiment the participants sat for seven hours after eating. In the second they sat around, but every 20 minutes did a couple of minutes’ slow walking on a treadmill. In the third, they upped their pace on the treadmill.

Dunstan found that breaking up the sitting with “activity breaks” every 20 minutes resulted in a reduction of blood glucose and blood insulin by 20-25%, compared with those of participants who just sat. It didn’t matter whether they had exercised moderately or vigorously.

But in an office, how feasible is it to get up and walk around for two minutes three times an hour? It is early days for this sort of research, Dunstan says, and he can’t make any precise recommendations yet. “We’re looking at what happens if you do more vigorous activity once an hour. Or what happens if you just stand up, for instance. This is where we’re putting our foot on the accelerator, trying to answer those questions about what is feasible and also what are the consequences.”

In the meantime, he would recommend we “quit the sit” and perhaps get an adjustable desk. “It’s not a case of just standing, or just sitting, but about moving between sitting and standing.” Adjustable desks are apparently popular in Europe, although mostly for musculoskeletal problems rather than metabolic issues. Australians and New Zealanders have been slow to adopt them, but Dunstan thinks that is changing. “It’s bit of a mini-revolution; people are beginning to say, ‘Hey, I sit nearly 10 hours a day. This can’t be good for me.’”

Every movement helps. Go and talk to your colleagues down the hall rather than emailing them. Stand when your boss is talking to you. Now go and get a cup of tea.

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