What if I told you that there was an activity that you probably spend seven or eight hours a day doing and that same activity was robbing you of your health, doubling your risk for diabetes and raising your levels of chronic inflammation?
Well, there is such an activity, you do spend at least seven hours a day doing it, and it is robbing you of your health.. And guess what. It isn’t smoking. It isn’t drinking. It isn’t taking recreational drugs.
Nope. It’s plain, old, garden-variety sitting.
That’s right, sitting. And I’m not using “sitting” as a shorthand for “sedentary life”. Sitting for long periods of time is a health risk all its own. And even if you exercise every day you don’t get a free pass.
See, it’s not the one hour day you put in at the gym—it’s the eight hours a day you put in on your butt. We used to think that the problem with sitting around all day had to do with the fact that people who sit all day aren’t exercising and are generally leading sedentary lives. But it turns out it’s not just the absence of exercise, but the very act of sitting for extended periods of time that actually produces specific metabolic changes.
When you sit in a chair all day, you start to feel lethargic. Why is that? Because red blood cells in your legs start clumping together, thickening inside your blood vessels and slowing your circulation. (This is why people on long airplane flights are advised to periodically get up and walk around.)
Sitting around actually elevates your blood sugar, which as most of us know, is the beginning of a prescription for metabolic disaster. What’s more, there’s an enzyme responsible for fat breakdown called lipase that basically stops working when you sit around for long periods of time. Between the elevation of blood sugar and the impairment of lipase activity (fat burning) you’re basically a metabolic mess. And that may be why it’s so hard for people to lose weight, even when they exercise an hour a day and eat really well. Eight hours a day of doing something that creates a really bad metabolic situation can overpower even your best weight loss efforts.
Let’s review—sitting doubles your risk for diabetes, lowers insulin sensitivity, and increases insulin and resistance. It lowers good HDL cholesterol by up to twenty percent. It slows blood flow, raises blood sugar and increases inflammation.
What can you do?
Number one: Plan your hours. Cornell’s Allen Hedges recommends twenty minutes of sitting, eight minutes of standing, two minutes of walking—repeat and rinse. Even if you can approximate this, it’ll be beneficial. Taking a five to ten minute break every hour just to walk around or even standing at your desk are ways around the metabolic mess that comes with prolonged sitting.
Number two: Take a walk. When you’re drawing a blank, and Angry Birds is calling you, just take a five minute walk. Research actually suggests that you’ll improve your creativity by up to sixty percent after doing so.
Number three: Stand when you’re tired. Standing up focuses your attention. It gives your circulation a boost. There’s a structure in your brain called the ascending reticular activating system—a network of neurons in your cerebral cortex that actually enhance alertness—and standing fires that structure up.
Number four: Get a standing desk. Or try sitting on a stability ball. Either is going to be a big improvement over sitting on a conventional desk chair because you’re using stabilizing muscles that you wouldn’t normally use.
The only goal of sitting should be to give your body a break from moving. So don’t make sitting your default activity.
The more you can stand, stretch, and move around, the better off you will be.