Studies have linked long periods of sitting with an increase in heart disease and early death.
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Odds are you are sitting while you read this. In fact, more than half of an average person’s waking hours are spent sitting, according to a study in the Jan. 19, 2015, Annals of Internal Medicine.
All that sitting can cause great damage to your health. “The health risks tied to sitting may not be completely related to the act of sitting itself, but rather that sitting keeps you from doing healthier activity,” says Dr. I-Min Lee of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Less is more
It’s simple math: the more you sit, the greater the threat — and the less time you spend sitting, the longer you’re likely to live.
For instance, a study in the August 2016 American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that sitting less can increase life expectancy. The researchers analyzed behavioral surveys of 433,000 people in 54 countries and matched them with statistics on population size and overall deaths. They found that a 50% reduction in time spent sitting per day would represent at least three times fewer deaths. Even a 10% reduction in daily sitting time (about 30 minutes) could significantly lower death rates.
Other research has found a correlation between sitting and heart disease. Research presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 2015 Scientific Sessions found that sitting for many hours per day is associated with increased coronary artery calcification, a marker for the presence of coronary artery disease.
Analyzing heart scans and physical activity records of more than 2,000 adults, the researchers found that on average, each additional hour of sedentary time per day was associated with 14% more coronary artery calcification. The people sat for between two and 12 hours a day.
Take steps to get moving
Of course, you cannot eliminate all sitting. The goal is to be more mindful of how much you sit during the day and then take steps to reduce that time and substitute it with more movement.
“Sitting less is good, but what are you doing during that time? You have to add activity to counter the negative effects from sitting,” says Dr. Lee. “Doing something is better than nothing, and doing more is better than doing little.”
An observational study published online April 30, 2015, by the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found that doing just two minutes of light-intensity activity like walking for each hour of sitting was associated with a 33% lower risk of dying early. While there can be underlying health issues that make it difficult for people to walk, the study does show that getting up and moving around can be helpful.
Yet, if you regularly sit for eight or more hours daily, you need at least an hour of moderate-intensity exercise to offset sitting’s health risks, according to an analysis of 16 studies published online July 27, 2016, in The Lancet. The researchers looked at more than one million people and divided them into four groups depending on their amount of moderate-intensity activity — for example, walking at 3.5 mph or cycling at 10 mph. The duration of activity ranged from less than five minutes per day to more than an hour. The researchers found that 60 to 75 minutes of exercise per day was needed to eliminate the increased risk of early death associated with sitting for long periods.
Add more activity
Lifestyle habits can help you break up your sitting and squeeze in more activity during your non-sitting time. For instance:
Move around every 30 minutes. Set a timer to remind you, especially when you sit for long stretches like working at a desk, watching TV, or reading. “Walk around the house, climb the stairs, or water the plants outside,” says Dr. Lee.
Pace during phone calls. Whenever you’re on the phone, stand up, and walk back and forth while you talk.
Turn commercial breaks into workout breaks. “Use the two- or three-minute TV commercial break to stand and do lunges or swing your arms, or simply do a quick chore like cleaning the kitchen counter,” says Dr. Lee.
Walk whenever possible. Park farther away when you go to the store, take the stairs instead of the elevator if you are able, or walk for short errands instead of taking the car.
Use a pedometer, fitness tracker, or phone app to count your daily steps. Some people find that doing so provides a constant reminder to keep moving. While 10,000 steps per day is the most popular target, research indicates that about 7,000 steps fulfill current guidelines for physical activity, says Dr. Lee.