If "Sitting is Literally Killing" Americans, What Can We Do?
Exercising at the office isn't as hard as you think
On any given day, we sit a lot: at breakfast, to put on our shoes, to ride the train, bus or drive to work, where we are sedentary for hours (sometimes even through lunch). Then we repeat the commute, only to get home to relax from our "exhausting" day by sitting again: at the dinner table, in front of the television, or at our computers.
We go to the gym and we're on our butts again: on a stationary bike, rowing machine or leg press.
But even for fitness enthusiasts, the exercise isn't enough to counter all that inactivity, according to Dr. James Levine, who treats obesity at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, one of the country's premier research hospitals.
“What is critical and maybe even more important than going to the gym, is breaking up that sitting time," Levine told NBC. "Sitting all day long is literally killing us."
Sound dramatic? It's not entirely.
Research shows that sitting for more than six hours a day makes you 40 percent more likely to die within 15 years than someone who sits less than three—even if you exercise. And for those aged 45 and older, a study of more than 220,000 people found that mortality risks are 15 percent higher for those sitting between eight and 11 hours compared to those sitting fewer than four hours per day.
According to Levine, when we sit, our muscles stop working, our heart slows and our calorie and fat burning rate plummet (by 50 percent if sitting a full day). Consequently, our body fat increases and our cholesterol levels rise.
That comes as no surprise to Bridget Smith, celebrity trainer and national spokesperson for the American Heart Association. She said people who "sit all day at the office without any activity" increase their risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It can also cause lower back pain. "Those muscles that you use to sit, like your hamstrings and legs, shorten and your hip flexors tighten up," she explained.
The New York Times reported last year that the average adult spends 50 to 70 percent of his or her time sitting. Those with the “highest sedentary behavior” had a 112 percent increase in their relative risk of developing diabetes; a 147 percent increase in their risk for cardiovascular disease; and a 49 percent greater risk of dying prematurely—even if they regularly exercised.
As disheartening as that news is to hear, Smith said it shouldn't discourage us from hitting the gym.
"You can't necessarily revert those diseases, but you can help prevent them," she said.
Levine suggests getting up and moving for 10 minutes every hour, but an employee who can never be found at his or her desk sounds like a nightmare for a boss (and like grounds for firing).
"We all know we cannot quit our jobs in order to avoid sitting at a desk," said Lauren Schmitt, owner of Healthy Eating and Training, Inc., "And a 10-minute break per hour is unlikely, but you can walk the long way to the bathroom, you can stand up and stretch on the hour, and sitting on a fitness ball forces an individual to engage their core and promotes good posture."
(Smith, too, is a fan of swapping out your office chair in the name of exercise: "Just sitting on a fitness ball all day instead burns four times as many calories. At 160 calories a day, Monday through Friday, that adds up!")
Schmitt adds that one of her clients, who sits near a staircase at work and walks them every hour, believes the one-minute break from her computer increases her productivity.
Jessica Drummond, a certified clinical nutritionist and health coach, suggests tracking those results to present to a skeptical superior. Just moving 10 minutes an hour per day could reduce company healthcare costs by reducing employees' risk for obesity-related diseases.
"Mini-exercise breaks do increase oxygen to the brain, and may improve your creative output, focus, and speed," Drummond said.
In fact, getting your employer on board with exercise is key, said Joel Ingersoll, psychologist and personal fitness trainer. He said the health and wellness culture within an organization has to change.
"Imagine the boss saying to you, 'I need to run a few things by you, but from now on let's talk while walking up a couple flights of stairs,'" he said.
Smith said the small things do add up: parking farther away, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking to a co-worker's desk instead of emailing, instant messaging or calling. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator increases your chances of getting into shape by 10 to 15 percent, she said.
Jan Patenaude, a nutritionist in Carbondale, Colorado, exercises when she is waiting on a document to upload or download or while reading a long email. "I may walk in place, or do squats, side bends, or twists."
And Chuck Solomon, a marketing director for HomeSpot Pro in, North Carolina, stands while talking on the phone and rotates between sitting on a chair or an exercise ball. He has lost 30 pounds by combining moving more with a healthier diet.
While Levine has created a "Treadmill Desk," not every employer will be accommodating of an exercise machine in the office even if it has a desk attached to it.
Schmitt suggested asking for an adjustable desk instead that can be raised to allow you to stand while working. Standing burns 50 percent more calories than sitting.
But if you can't sell them on that idea either, be creative. Use your desk to do standing push-ups, organize a group walk during lunch and set a timer to remind yourself to move every hour. And drink water often (not just to increase your trips to the water cooler, but to the bathroom, too.)
And if none of that becomes habit, Drummond still refuses to accept excuses. "The weekends are your first opportunity to change your habits. When you are not required to sit for work, are you choosing to sit to surf the web or watch TV?"