You know that feeling you get when you’ve been sitting for too long? The aching back, tight neck and pain in your hips that come from hours stuck on a plane, hunched over your computer or camped out on your couch for another episode of your favorite show? Well, the newest science suggests that a sedentary lifestyle does more than cause us aches and pain—sitting too much is actually linked to serious health conditions:
- Older women who spend 11 or more hours of their day sitting or lying down are at an increased risk of death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer.
- Being sedentary for five or more hours or getting minimal physical activity increases the risk of heart failure in men. The combination of both factors is especially dangerous.
- Being sedentary affects more than the heart: Studies have shown negative effects on weight, inflammation, sleep, blood sugar, lungs and memory, as well.
- Research on animals shows that inactivity actually changes the shape of neurons in the brain in ways that increase blood pressure and contribute to the development of heart disease.
You may not think these findings apply if you exercise regularly. And until recently scientists would have agreed with you. But recent research shows that although, say, 30 minutes of exercise a few times a week certainly goes a long way in warding off illness, it isn’t enough to keep us in optimal health. “We now know that a lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle are two distinct risk factors for health issues,” says Dawn McCrystal, M.S., R.C.E.P., C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “Even if we’re exercising five days a week for a half-hour at a time, if we’re sitting the rest of the day we’re at risk for health problems.”
Thanks in part to fewer physically demanding jobs and more screen time both on the job and at home, we’re less active than ever. One study found that we spend more than half our waking hours either sitting or lying down. Why is sitting so dangerous? When you’re glued to your chair or the couch for too many hours of the day, your circulation starts to slow, causing problems with multiple body functions. “Sitting for prolonged periods of time can contribute to plaque and clot development that increases your risk for vascular disease, including the heart, brain and peripheral vessels,” McCrystal says. “It also changes how your body metabolizes blood glucose (sugar), making your tissues more insulin-resistant and increasing your risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity.”
Regular exercise is a partial antidote to so much sitting, but it isn’t the complete answer to our increasingly sedentary ways. We also need to find more ways to move throughout the day, a concept known as NEAT (nonexercise activity thermogenesis).
“NEAT is any movement above rest that increases your energy expenditure but that isn’t a structured exercise routine,” McCrystal explains. Almost any activity you can think of counts—from walking around the room when you take a phone call to getting up to mail a letter. You don’t have to move all day long—even if you get up for a minute or two every hour, it’ll make a positive impact on your health. There are plenty of opportunities to incorporate more movement into your everyday routine—whether you’re at work, home or on the go:
- Commute by Bike. Getting to and from work via bicycle is a growing trend in many areas of the country, and it’s a great way to move more throughout the day. Biking to work also means you’re more likely to pedal or walk to get coffee or lunch, helping you log even more activity.
- Get Up from Your Desk Every Hour. Try setting an alarm on your computer or phone to remind you to stand up and stretch for a minute or two. “It’s so easy for two hours to go by without even realizing that you haven’t budged,” McCrystal notes. You might also consider a standing desk, or placing your computer on a counter or sturdy pedestal that lets you stand while you work.
- Look for Little Ways to Walk a Bit Farther. Park in the farthest spot away from the front door when you’re shopping. Cut your elevator ride short and take the stairs for the last few floors. Get off the subway a few stops sooner and walk the rest of the way. This extra effort might not seem like a lot, but it adds up if you make it a habit.
- Change Your Mind-set About Chores. Vacuuming, doing the dishes, carrying the laundry basket up the stairs, shoveling snow and mowing the lawn—all of these household chores that we consider drudgery are actually opportunities to improve your health. “I find that people who are at home and doing these types of chores for several hours a day have a good health profile, even if they don’t get to the gym, because they have a high level of NEAT,” McCrystal says.
- Take a Walk. Instead of plopping down in front of the TV after dinner, make it a habit to go for a short evening stroll. “This after-dinner walk is so important, because it boosts your metabolism and helps process the carbohydrates, fat and everything else you’ve just put into your body,” McCrystal says. If a nighttime walk doesn’t work for you, even sitting on an exercise ball, doing some stretches or lifting a 2-pound weight while you watch your favorite show is beneficial, McCrystal says. “It’s not high-intensity, but it’s getting your body to move a little bit.”
- Adopt a Dog. Research shows that people with dogs are more active. In one study by the American Heart Association, dog owners walked an average of 300 minutes each week compared to 168 minutes for non-dog owners.
- Do More in Your Leisure Time. Most of us could definitely be more active on the weekends or our days off. Before that drive to the movies this weekend, how about a hike in the woods or at a nearby park?
- Track Your Movement. A pedometer or a more sophisticated tracking device can help you gauge how much you’re moving throughout the day, which can give you the kick in the butt you need to incorporate more activity into your lifestyle. Try aiming for 10,000 steps a day, though any improvement is beneficial. “These devices are a nice guide that can prompt you to say, ‘OK, I’ve only taken 2,000 steps,’” McCrystal says. “‘I need to move more.’”