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Sitting Can Sabotage Your Good Health Habits

The more you sit, the more you harm your future health. The evidence is piling up from big studies that sitting is a health risk all on its own. So even if you exercise regularly, sitting for long periods can undermine all that good work. But with small changes, you can combat that risk.

The news first made a splash in January 2014 with a study of some 93,000 midlife and older women (ages 50-79) after menopause in the famous Women’s Health Initiative. The women who were sedentary more than 11 hours a day—not hard to rack up with a desk job and some evening TV—had a 12 percent higher risk of dying early than women who were inactive for 4 hours a day or less. The most inactive women also had a 13 percent higher risk of dying of cardiovascular disease, a 27 percent higher risk of dying of coronary heart disease, and a 21 percent higher risk of dying from cancer.

Then in February 2014, the news got worse when another big study came out. This one included some 2,000 adults age 60 and older in National Health and Nutrition Examinations Surveys (NHANES) who had their activity measured with a monitor they wore around their waist.

For each hour a day that these men and women were inactive, their risk of becoming physically disabled went up 46 percent—even if they spent time doing moderate-to-vigorous exercise. The risk was even higher for people over age 70 and for African Americans.

The surveys also showed that Americans 60 and older sit a lot. The average was 9 out of 14 waking hours a day. And two thirds of the people in the study were at least that sedentary.


What’s So Bad About Sitting?

It isn’t clear why sitting itself is such a risk for problems, but the researchers involved with the studies speculated on a number of possible reasons:

  • Muscle metabolism—and thus your energy use—goes down (even worse if you slump so your back and stomach muscles go unused)
  • Muscles don’t burn as much fat
  • Good cholesterol (HDL) levels go down
  • Blood sugar doesn’t get cleared and insulin secretion goes down
  • Blood flow becomes sluggish

But maybe a half hour of exercise just can’t make up for the slow-down of 9 hours of inaction.

Little Changes Go a Long Way

There’s good news in all this bad news: It probably doesn’t take much to help offset the effects of inactivity. The key is to get in as much no-sitting time as you can. Here are ways you can do that:

  • Stand up while you talk on the phone
  • Walk around your office
  • Stand up and do something every time an ad comes on TV (resist surfing!)
  • Set a reminder on your computer to take breaks from screen time (There are apps for that! PC WorkBreak is one.)
  • Park your car at the far end of the lot
  • Wear a pedometer or other type of activity tracker to get motivated to move

But Don’t Give Up Your Workouts

Cutting your sit time is important, but it doesn’t mean you should forget about your moderate-to-vigorous exercise program. Here’s what exercise can do for women at menopause and beyond:

  • Aerobic exercise improves memory and thinking skills and increases blood flow to key regions of the brain, especially areas linked to thinking skills in later life and to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Moderate activity (like brisk walking) cuts your stroke risk, helping offset the increased risk with hormone therapy.
  • Moderate-intensity exercise may not cut your hot flashes, but it will help with some other menopause-related problems, including sleep, depression, and anxiety.
  • Exercise is good for your heart. Exercising for 30 minutes a day cuts coronary heart disease in women by 30 to 40 percent.
  • Weight-bearing exercise (such as brisk walking, jogging, or running) can strengthen your bones before and after menopause. And for women age 75 and older, muscle strengthening and balance exercises can cut the risk of falls and fall-related injuries by 75%.
  • Regular exercise may lower your risk of breast cancer by 40%.
  • For breast cancer patients and survivors, exercise cuts the side effects of chemotherapy drugs, improves the chances of survival, and cuts the risk of cancer recurrence.
  • If you have colon cancer and exercise just 150 minutes a week (brisk walking or the equivalent), you can cut your risk of dying by about 40%--better than most chemotherapy drugs. 
Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
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