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Posted by on Jan 19, 2012 in Health, Research Blogging, Science | 6 comments

Death by Sitting

As I sit here on my 5th ..6th ..7th .. (what day are we on?) day of marathon writing, trying to meet an impossible February 1st deadline, I can’t help but think about some recent studies and articles on the dangers inherent in our sedentary lifestyles. Then today, a fabulous video on the subject crossed my path, so I want to share that with you. But first, some background.

For decades doctors have studied the positive effects of activity. By now we should all know that if you exercise more, you’ll be more healthy — physically and mentally.  I don’t even need to give you links for that. But what if you’re pretty happy with how you look and feel? Does that get you out of exercising?

To find that out, someone had to study the problem from the opposite viewpoint– how does being sedentary affect health? Well, the folks over at Obesity Panacea have been talking about the whole field of sedentary physiology for some time. Check them out for a run down of what science knows about that. But meanwhile, I’ll jump straight to the spoiler:

Being sedentary is killing us.

Alright, that’s dramatic, but really, our bodies aren’t meant to sit in our chairs, recline on our couches, and sleep in our beds for 12..15…23 hours a day.  The fact is, the longer we sit, the sooner we die.

Now that first study targeted television-watchers, a cohort that doesn’t include me. But those of us who sit at our computers all day are no better off. Sitting is sitting, no matter what you’re doing or how much you spent on your ergonomic office chair.

Nor will this

So, what to do?  Well, some people have resorted to using standing desks but, as any cashier or surgeon will tell you, standing in one place all day long isn’t good for you either.   Alex Hutchinson of SweatScience provides some straight-talk on standing desks in a recent  Globe and Mail Jockology column.

What you don’t need to do is resort to fancy gadgets or pricy gym memberships you’ll never get your money’s worth from. No, there’s an easier answer:

To gain a measurable health and lifespan improvement over sitting, just get up and walk around.

And the operative term there is “get up.”  Sitting on an exercise ball, doing curls or butt-squeezes from your chair, lying on your back stretching — this is not getting up.

Here’s the ticket!

So, that’s the cure. What’s the dose?  It turns out, only thirty minutes a day out of your chair (or bed or couch or car)  is enough to measurably reduce the negative health effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Everything after that is certainly a bonus (and recommended!), but incremental in its overall health gains. That first step is really the one that matters.

Now, since I’m short on time (remember that deadline I mentioned?).. I’m going to let Dr. Mike Evans talk to you about the 30 minutes and what effect is will have on your health.

Watch it while you’re walking around and you’re 9 minutes into your 30. Now go!

Patel, A., Bernstein, L., Deka, A., Feigelson, H., Campbell, P., Gapstur, S., Colditz, G., & Thun, M. (2010). Leisure Time Spent Sitting in Relation to Total Mortality in a Prospective Cohort of US Adults American Journal of Epidemiology, 172 (4), 419-429 DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwq155

Veerman, J., Healy, G., Cobiac, L., Vos, T., Winkler, E., Owen, N., & Dunstan, D. (2011). Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis British Journal of Sports Medicine DOI: 10.1136/bjsm.2011.085662


  1. Great post, and thanks for the shout-out! Just one important caveat.

    The reason why it’s so scary that “sitting is killing us”, is that it doesn’t matter if you’re physically active or not. Many studies (and more recently systematic reviews) have suggested that people who sit more die sooner (and suffer from higher rates of chronic disease), _even if they are physically active_.

    There is no question that exercising for 30 minutes per day will dramatically reduce your risk of disease. However, if you exercise for 30 minutes and remain sedentary for the rest of your waking hours, your health risk is still substantially higher than if you were active for 30 minutes AND reduced your sitting time.

    On that note, devices that reduce sedentary time at work (e.g. standing desks, pedal desks, etc) are likely to reduce health risk, although the interventions in this area are really just getting started.

    Good luck with your writing!

  2. Very good points Travis. Thanks for bringing them up.

    I think what we’re all saying is that motion matters — everything from simply stretching and walking around the room to full gym workouts and running a 5k. But, as you say, the key is what you do with the other 23 hours in your day.

    When I’m on an intense writing project or other desk-bound work, I set a timer so that I walk around and do something active for 10 minutes out of every 60. (Cleaned the whole garage in 10 minute increments one winter!) Whether I do a gym workout that day or not, those breaks make all the difference, both in how I feel physically and how productive I am at my desk.

    Hmm.. maybe what we need is a butt-in-chair timer .. there must be an app for that ….

  3. MSNBC, 24 Oct 2010 had an article titled “Why your desk job is slowly killing you” that addressed similar issues you have brought forth: inactivity for extended periods of time in the workplace – which is becoming more common. Like you, getting up from you the desk every hour is mandatory but I’ve added a twist and have my PC print to the furthest departmental printer from my desk. It’s a healthy walk even for one sheet of paper.

    As a side note I DO NOT recommend anyone to post a health related article on the outside of their office or cube that contains the works “desk job” and “killing” – even though the the intention was to raise colleague awareness and perhaps prevent a blood clot or two. Although my intentions were sincere, HR only saw the words “desk job and killing”, becamed alarmed (cause they didn’t read the rest of the article) and this event resulted in a visit to the pricipal’s office. They were not amused.

  4. Loved the article, Kim, and I must admit…guilty as charged. However, I’m now motivated to get off my bum and keep moving. Very interesting.

  5. @G, Thanks for the MSNBC story. The article makes Travis’s exact point:

    “… “Regularly exercising is not the same as being active,” says Peter Katzmarzyk, Ph.D… Katzmarzyk is referring to the difference between official exercise activity, such as running, biking, or lifting weights, and so-called nonexercise activity, like walking to your car, mowing the lawn, or simply standing. “A person may hit the gym every day, but if he’s sitting a good deal of the rest of the time, he’s probably not leading an overall active life,” says Katzmarzyk.

    “..In a 2007 report, University of Missouri scientists said that people with the highest levels of nonexercise activity (but little to no actual “exercise”) burned significantly more calories a week than those who ran 35 miles a week but accumulated only a moderate amount of nonexercise activity.”
    MSNBC: Why your desk job is slowly killing you

  6. Terry, we’re all guilty as charged. Let’s get off our butts and see what we can do about that! Thanks for stopping by.

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