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:
- Heart disease
- Over-productive pancreas
- Colon cancer
- Mushy abs
- Tight hips
- Limp glutes
- 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.