Dear Doctors: I’ve been working from home for six months, so no more bike commutes and no office staircases. My two young kids are home, too, which means I can’t do a lunchtime bike ride, or even go during a break. How bad is it that I’m sitting way more than ever?
Dear Reader: We wish we had better news, but, yes, prolonged sitting is bad for your health. The long stretches of sitting required by so many modern jobs are putting people at risk of a number of adverse health effects. This includes weight gain, obesity, increases in abdominal fat, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Taken together, these factors are associated with an increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, as well as early death. Add in the mental health side effects of prolonged inactivity, such as depression and anxiety, and it’s easy to see how the term “sitting disease” came about.
It wasn't all that long ago -- historians point to the Industrial Revolution -- that we humans began to sit down for extended periods. Prior to that, staying fed, clothed, housed, protected and entertained kept us moving. With more than 600 muscles in our bodies, it’s what we’re literally built to do. This includes walking, running, reaching, climbing, stretching, swimming, twisting, crawling, jumping, bending and lifting throughout long and mostly active days. And while disease, hunger and hardship took their toll in the agrarian world, it does seem that with increasingly sedentary work and play, we’ve now traded one set of health problems for another.
Today, only two out of every 10 workers have active jobs, a decrease of about 80% since 1950. Between desk work, passive transportation and the increasingly sedentary nature of entertainment and play, many people stay seated for at least 10 hours each day. That’s the number research associates with a marked increase in cardiac risk.
All of which means that, even during the pandemic that’s robbed us of our normal lives, we need to get creative and get moving. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much. A study that tracked the mortality rate of 8,000 adults aged 45 and older for four years found that trading 30 seated minutes for the same amount of moderate or vigorous activity lowered the risk of early death by 35%. This joins previous research that pegged duration of sitting -- an hour or more at a stretch -- as a risk factor. People who sat for 30 minutes or less at a time had the best outcomes.
So do your heart, lungs and metabolism a favor and work regular movement into your day. Set a timer to walk a few minutes every half-hour. Get some hand weights and lift throughout the day. Get your kids involved, too: Run and jump and stretch, chase each other around the house, have parades, enjoy moments of planned chaos, take walks together, do yoga, practice deep breathing, ride bikes. Make it a goal to work movement into your family’s daily life, and your body and your kids (and your family doctor) will thank you.
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