“There are about three dozen chronic diseases and conditions associated with excess sitting,” says James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic.
For example, people who report sitting for the most hours per day have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.1 And their insulin becomes less effective (which may explain their higher diabetes risk).
In one study, “the day after 14 young healthy adults sat for nearly 17 hours, their insulin was roughly 40 percent less effective in lowering their blood sugar than it was after a day with lots of standing and moving about and just six hours of sitting,” says study author Barry Braun, professor and head of the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State University.2
Hitting the gym may not make up for a day at your desk.
On four days when 18 sedentary young adults broke up a 14-hour period of sitting with standing (for 2 hours) and leisurely walking (for 4 hours), their triglycerides were lower—and they needed less insulin to handle a sugar-laden drink—than on the four days when they sat for 14 hours.3 But when they replaced one of the 14 hours of sitting with an hour of vigorous exercise, their insulin and triglycerides were no better than when they sat all day.
“Think of it this way,” says Levine. “Why would you expect that something you do for 60 minutes a day would offset the harm of something you do for 13 or 14 hours a day?”
Two more reasons not to act like there’s glue on the seat of your chair:
Artery function. After 12 young men sat without moving their legs for three hours, their blood vessels were less able to respond to increases in blood flow than when they took a 5-minute walk during each of the three hours.4
Mood, fatigue, hunger. When 30 adults sat for 6 hours, they reported feeling less energetic later in the day than when they broke up the sitting with either one 30-minute brisk walk or one 5-minute brisk walk every hour. But only when they took the 5-minute hourly walks did they report fewer food cravings before lunch and better mood all day.5
What to do:
Stuck in an office without a standing or treadmill desk? “There are many options that don’t require fancy equipment,” says Levine. Try walk-and-talk meetings. Or stand and pace when you answer the phone. Or walk to a co-worker’s office instead of sending an e-mail. Or take the stairs. Or park at the back of the parking lot.
Your goal, according to an expert panel in Britain: spend half your workday upright or moving around.6
“We want to develop the best catalogue of approaches that individuals and companies can use to get moving,” says Levine, who has worked with several companies that market standing desks and other gadgets that nudge people to move more.
Just make sure you don’t sit around and wait for his results.
1 Diabetologia 55: 2895, 2012.
2 Metab. Clin. Exper. 60: 941, 2011.
3 PLoS One 8: e55542, 2013.
4 Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 47: 843, 2015.
5 Int. J. Behav. Nutr. Phys. Act. 13: 113, 2016.
6 Br. J. Sports Med. 49: 1357, 2015.
Find this article about the health effects of sitting interesting and useful? Nutrition Action Healthletter subscribers regularly get sound, timely information about staying healthy with diet and exercise, delicious recipes, and detailed analyses of the healthy and unhealthy foods in supermarkets and restaurants. If you’re not already subscribing to the world’s most popular nutrition newsletter, click here to join hundreds of thousands of fellow health-minded consumers.