Are You Sitting Down?

Young Businessman Using Computer Suffering From Neck Ache

You sit too much. I do too. The truth is that virtually all of us sit far more each day than we should… certainly more than our ancestors ever did. Between the commute, the office chair, and the couch or the recliner, all of that sitting adds up. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually one of the biggest health dangers of our modern world. Even if you exercise regularly, too much sitting can lead to illness, and even death.

That statement may seem overly dramatic, but it’s true. Studies have found that excessive sitting is linked to chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. It has also been linked to a higher risk of premature death. A 2012 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine linked each hour we spend sitting and watching television with a lifespan decrease of just under 22 minutes. Smoking one cigarette has been found to shorten lifespan by about 11 minutes.

That’s right: sitting for an hour may be twice as dangerous as having a cigarette (and we all know how terrible those are for many aspects of our health). In response to all of the dangers of sitting, Ohio State University’s Dr. Anup Kanodia recently coined the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking.” It’s a fair comparison.

If you do find yourself sitting for many hours a day, whether the reasons are professional or recreational, it’s really worth it to your health to break it up with standing and movement as often as possible. Even if you’re working at an office and have to sit, standing and stretching every 15 minutes or so is better than continuously sitting. You should also find time to walk as often as you can, even if it’s down the hall a few times.

There’s more… if you spend less time sitting, you could even slow down the aging of your cells. A study performed in 2013 and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine tested the effects of exercise and less sitting on the DNA of elderly, sedentary people. For the study, researchers recruited volunteers that were overweight, and did not have very mobile lifestyles. All of the volunteers were 68 years old. After giving blood samples, half of the volunteers were placed on an exercise program and told to sit less. The other half were not given any specific health advice.

After six months, the researchers took more blood samples from both groups, and compared the length of their telomeres with the length they had been at the beginning of the study. Telomeres are “strands” located at the ends of DNA, which tend to become shorter, and frayed, with the age of the cell. They also become shorter and frayed due to illness and certain other conditions. As the researchers explain, “telomere length has been associated with a healthy lifestyle and longevity.”

Blood samples taken after the study revealed that the participants who spent the least time sitting had the longest telomeres, regardless of the time they spent exercising. The control group (who didn’t change their sitting habits at all) was found to have shorter telomeres than at the beginning of the study. While exercise is still, of course, vitally important to health, just standing, and not spending countless hours in a chair, may help significantly in preserving the youth of DNA.

So, if you’re sitting down right now, do yourself a favor and stand up! Don’t let your body wither away in your computer chair (or any other chair): get on your feet, and get moving! If you’re stuck at a desk at work, you may wish to consider a standing desk. Do what you need to do to break up all that sitting… your life depends on it.

– Dr. Joshua Levitt