What if I told you that 80% of Americans work in hazardous jobs without even realizing it? I'm not talking about steelworkers, loggers, miners, or commercial fishers (though those occupations are plenty deadly). I'm talking about the average office worker – receptionists, programmers, writers, managers, and such. Countless employees do something which wreaks havoc on their health: sitting.
Dr. James Levine from the Mayo Clinic coined the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” to describe the horrifying conclusions his research uncovered. While initially mocked by his colleagues, he and other researchers have put forth a compelling argument: A low amount of NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) — energy use outside of sports-like exercise — is linked to multiple adverse effects. Walking down the street, folding laundry, vacuuming, moving boxes, and even fidgeting all count as NEAT activities. The longer you sit, the more you put yourself at risk.
Unfortunately, American workers live a mostly sedentary lifestyle. The average person sits for 13 hours a day and sleeps for another eight, leading to 21 hours of inactivity. Outside of desk jobs, Americans also sit while commuting, eating, watching TV, reading, gaming, or using their computer. The bitter truth is that our bodies weren’t designed to be idle, yet only about one-fifth of Americans meet the CDC’s Physical Activity Guidelines.
Still not convinced? Here is some frightening evidence that will change your mind:
Over one-third of American adults are obese, according to the CDC. Our increasingly sedentary habits clearly play a significant role in weight gain.
Dr. Levine’s inactivity research began when he sought to find out why some people gained weight and others didn’t. Participants underwent a two-month experiment where they were instructed to eat all food that the lab provided and to avoid exercise. However, some participants didn’t gain weight even when Dr. Levine piled on an extra 1,000 daily calories to their diets.
He reached a dramatic breakthrough six years later thanks to the use of motion-tracking underwear. Subjects who didn’t gain weight simply unconsciously moved around more frequently. Small motions like walking and fidgeting burned calories. Most importantly, Dr. Levine discovered that those who didn’t gain weight spent two fewer hours sitting each day when compared to those who did.
Marc Hamilton, an inactivity researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, said that sitting decreases the amount of electrical activity in your muscles, which leads to some very disastrous consequences. It slows down the rate at which your body breaks down calories, lipids, and triglycerides. Your metabolism rate decreases and food converts into fat rather than energy.
Obesity and cardiovascular issues are strongly correlated. Excessive weight often leads to high blood pressure, hypertension, and increased levels of blood lipids, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol. Additionally, obesity can cause left ventricular hypertrophy, which may result in heart failure.
Hamilton’s research uncovered that sitting suppresses a gene called LPP1 (lipid phosphate phosphatase-1) which helps prevent inflammation and blood clotting.
“The shocker was that LPP1 was not impacted by exercise if the muscles were inactive most of the day,” he said. “Pretty scary to say that LPP1 is sensitive to sitting but resistant to exercise.”
Another study compared adults who recreationally spent less than two hours a day in front of a TV screen with those who spent over four hours a day. The people who watched more television had an almost 50% higher risk of death from any cause and an approximately 125% increased risk of cardiovascular problems such as chest pain or heart attacks.
A study published in the Journal of National Cancer Institute discovered that prolonged periods of sitting increases chanced of developing cancer by up to 66% when compared to those who don’t sit as often. Researchers Daniela Schmid and Dr. Michael Leitzmann from the University of Regensburg in Germany conducted a meta-analysis of 43 studies found that sedentary behavior increases the risk of developing colon cancer by 24%, endometrial cancer by 32%, and lung cancer by 21%. Furthermore, every two consecutive hours spent sitting increases the risk of colon cancer by 8%, endometrial cancer by 10%, and lung cancer by 6%. These effects occurred even in those who were physically active, suggesting that exercise might not be enough to offset the downsides of prolonged sitting.
The authors noted that watching TV for long periods of time increased the risk of colon cancer by 54% and endometrial cancer by 66%. They hypothesized that people consume unhealthy food while watching TV, thus increasing chances of developing cancer. Similarly, a study published in Circulation concluded that each hour of watching television increased the risk of death by 11%.
There was no correlation found between sitting and other forms of cancer such as breast cancer and prostate cancer.
A study published in Diabetologia found that prolonged sitting puts people at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
“In adults at high risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus, time spent sedentary is strongly and adversely associated with cardiometabolic health and may be a more important indicator of poor health than MVPA (moderate-to-vigorous physical activity),” the study concluded.
“When we sit for long periods of time, enzyme changes occur in our muscles that can lead to increased blood sugar levels,” said lead study author Emma Wilmot, MD.
A similar study found that each extra hour spent sitting increases odds of type 2 diabetes by 22%. Those with diabetes spend up to 26 more minutes sitting when compared to those without, according to lead researcher Julianne van der Berg, from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. She noted that this study merely proves a correlation, not causation and that conclusions were independent of high-intensity exercise.
“We lose two hours of life for every hour we sit,” wrote Dr. Levine.
Now that’s a frightening quote.
Alpa Patel, an epidemiologist from the American Cancer Society, studied the health of 123,000 Americans from 1992 and 2006. He found that men who spent at least six hours a day sitting during their leisure time had a 20% higher death rate when compared to men who spent three or fewer hours sitting. The death rate for women who sat at least six hours a day was about 40%.
Prolonged sitting, combined with a lack of exercise, even ages your body faster. One study found that women who didn’t exercise and were sedentary for at least 10 hours a day had cells aged eight years ahead of those who were more active.
Overwhelming scientific evidence points to the same terrifying conclusion: sitting for too long is killing you! It's a harsh truth to swallow, especially when most Americans are confined to their desks every day. Sitting is such a regular part of our lifestyles that it's nearly impossible to avoid long periods of inactivity.
Fortunately, many offices are waking up to this unfortunate reality. Ergonomic-friendly workplaces now utilize standing desks, treadmill desks, and even biking desks. Regular exercise, even as little as walking on a treadmill desk, helps improve productivity, energy, concentration, and memory. Employees who work out are healthier, less stressed, and don’t take as many sick days when compared to those that don’t exercise.
However, hitting the gym after your office job isn't always enough to counteract the harmful effects of sitting. The most effective method is just to sit less. Get up and take breaks. Walk to the bathroom, kitchen, or down the hallway. Stand when riding the bus or, if possible, eating meals. Hold standing meetings. Walk while taking private phone calls.
The shorter your sitting sessions, the better. Experts advise that you take short breaks about every half hour between your bouts of sitting. Sitting for stretches longer than 30 minutes increases your mortality rate by 55% when compared to those who sit for under that amount of time. Sitting for over 90 minutes at a time nearly doubles your mortality rate when compared to those who don’t sit for that long.
“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting,” warned Dr. Levine. “We are sitting ourselves to death."