Why We Need to Sit Less and Move More

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You may recall this lyric from a song Dionne Warwick made popular in 1964: “A chair is still a chair, even when there’s no one sitting there.”

According to new research about healthy aging, that’s just the way your chair should remain most of the time—with nobody sitting in it.

We’ve known for ages that exercise is good for our health. We’ve known, too, that the more we sit, the more we risk obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death. We hear regularly that Americans—over-eating and under-exercising—face an epidemic of “diabesity.”

Professors Sara and Richard Rosenkrantz at Kansas State University recently completed research that takes this idea one step further. Said Richard: "Not only do people need to be more physically active by walking or doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, but they should also be looking at ways to reduce their sitting time."

They examined data from the health and aging “45 and Up Study,” which surveyed 200,000 Australian men and women between the ages of 45 and 106. The duo determined that sitting and physical activity independently contributed to health and successful aging. Optimal wellness, they concluded, comes from both sitting less and moving more.

Exercising isn’t enough

Their examination of the data suggests that is not OK to exercise vigorously and then sit for the rest of the day. Here’s why: sitting for a long time virtually eliminates muscular contractions. That inactivity in turn deactivates the lipoprotein lipase (LPL) molecule, which helps absorb fat and create energy.

Said professor Sara Rosenkrantz: "We're basically telling our bodies to shut down the processes that help to stimulate metabolism throughout the day and that is not good. Just by breaking up your sedentary time, we can actually up-regulate that process in the body."

The Rosenkrantzes make a suggestion: people—like office workers—who must sit for long stretches should begin using sit-or-stand desks and workstations, so they can spend much more time on their feet.

In 2013, an exercise doctor in the UK determined that people can lose weight just by standing up. He calculated that simply standing—not sitting—for three hours each day burned an additional 144 calories, the equivalent of losing eight pounds of flab in a year.

The Rosenkrantz team advised children to try doing homework while standing, too—an opportunity to develop a good habit early.

The Washington Post chimes in

The front page of the Post’s January 14, 2014 “Health & Science” section featured a story by Bonnie Berkowitz titled "Don't just sit there!" The reporter interviewed four scientists who assessed the damage we inflict on our bodies by sitting for about eight hours every day—the average for adults in America.

Here’s what they found:

Organ damage

  • Heart disease
  • Over-productive pancreas
  • Colon cancer

Muscle degeneration

  • Mushy abs
  • Tight hips
  • Limp glutes

Leg disorders

  • Poor circulation
  • Soft bones

Trouble at the top

  • Foggy brain
  • Strained neck
  • Sore shoulders and back
  • Inflexible spine
  • Disk damage

And so, what do those experts recommend?

Here are a few suggestions the medical professionals offered to help mitigate the damage from too much sitting:

  • Sitting on something wobbly such as an exercise ball or even a backless stool to force your core muscles to work. Sit up straight and keep your feet flat on the floor in front of you so they support about a quarter of your weight.
  • Stretching the hip flexors for three minutes per side once a day (like a man on one knee, proposing).
  • Walking during commercials when you’re watching TV. Even a snail-like pace of 1 mph would burn twice the calories of sitting, and more vigorous exercise would be even better.
  • Alternating between sitting and standing at your work station. If you can’t do that, stand up every half hour or so and walk.
  • Trying yoga poses —the cow pose and the cat—to improve extension and flexion in your back. (Cow = on hands and knees, back arched, head up. Cat = on hands and knees, back humped, head down.)

The results of Sara and Richard Rosenkrantz's study on the adverse effects of too much sitting were published in the journal BMC Public Health. Here is that complete report.

Washington, DC, resident John Schappi blogs about aging, exercise, diet, pills, supplements, and his life with Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer. Once upon a time, he was addicted to nicotine, alcohol and sex. These days, his passions include gardening, playing bridge, meditating, going to the theater and traveling.

Aging, Parkinson’s, and Me

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4 Comments

Thanks for sharing. These ideas echo the premise of Dr. Joan Vernikos' book "Sitting Kills". Many of my students are joined in class by their caregivers. A great way for both to get the exercise they need.
Anne Pringle Burnell
Stronger Seniors
I agree that exercise is very important for the health of older people ( and younger ones) but very few older people have an exercise program or are even interested in having one. For me water exercise is the gold standard for exercise for people over forty but most older people are like cats. They hate the water and in fact, all exercise. This general lack of interest means there are very few serious exercise programs provided for older people as they won't go anyway. The few older people who take exercise seriously, like me, end up being considered honorary young people and doing whatever young person programs they can manage.

The Montreal Heart Institute has an amazing heart health program that about 6,000 people participate in. They have a whole building to themselves with swimming pool programs, gyms, nutrition advice and no kids. This program is not grudgingly tacked on as an afterthought to kids' programs. The staff know how older bodies work. I wish all cities had something like the Montreal Heart Institute programs.
i blew out my left knee in a bad skiing accident in 2001. for all practical purposes am disabled, can still safely participate in biking, swimming, other low-impact physical activity, everything else is a pretty big risk for me at this point; no health insurance, 56 years old, no medicare. i have complete sympathy for elderly who don't move around much. it becomes a common sense issue. does one really want to risk taking a fall, winding up in even worse shape than caused by lack of exercise? my mother has severe osteoporosis. i actually encourage her to spend time in a reclined position. at least that way i know she is perfectly safe from falls.