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The Real Effects of Sitting All Day Every Day

Written by Natalie Gallant on November 19th, 2017.      0 comments

Do you remember sitting playing computer games as a child? Lounging on the sofa watching TV as a teenager after hours spent sat slaving over schoolwork? Does sitting on your commute to work followed by sitting whilst at work sound familiar? You may even be sitting reading this article right now.

Sedentary behaviours like these have been proven to increase your risk of chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even mortality.(1) Now is the time to take a stand, quite literally.

Sedentary behaviour includes any activity involving an energy expenditure of less than 1.5 metabolic equivalent units (MET).(2) To put this in perspective, 1 MET is the amount of energy used when completely at rest, for example, sitting quietly reading or laying still watching TV. There is a distinct difference between sedentary behaviour like this and light physical activity such as cooking, washing up and walking slowly whereby energy expenditure is between 1.6-2.9 METs.(3) Vigorous physical activity ranges from 6 METs with light cycling for instance up to 10 METs as in competitive soccer.(3)

Yet globally, physical inactivity is estimated to cause between 3.2 million and 5 million deaths a year, making it the fourth largest leading risk factor for non-communicable diseases.(4)

The World Health Organisation(4) estimate physical inactivity to cause 30 percent of ischemic heart disease, 27 percent of type II diabetes and about 25 percent of breast and colon cancer throughout the world. Are you fidgeting in your seat yet? The health risks of long term sedentary behaviour are real.

And here’s the thing…research is showing we may be more sedentary than we think.(2)

Take for example Tom Nimble who arrives in his office each morning, lightly perspiring in his lyrcas after a twenty-minute cycle commute. After a hard days work sitting in front of his computer he retires home to the couch for the evenings TV viewings. Having hit the daily government recommended quota for exercise (and more in the weekends!) Mr Nimble feels satisfied with his efforts.
His Co-worker on the other hand, Sandra Slowvak, has responsibility for her kids morning school run. Aware of her struggle to squeeze in any vigorous exercise, Sandra ensures she stands regularly from her desk and takes phone calls standing up. After work Sandra stands for an hour watching her kids football practice, prepares the dinner, packs tomorrows lunches, tidy’s toys and puts the kids to bed.
In terms of energy expenditure, Sandra’s METs were frequently between 1.6-2.9 for long durations compared to Tom’s short, twice daily bout of around 6 METs.
For health reasons Tom needs to spend less time accumulating sedentary sitting hours.

A small reduction in time spent sitting can improve a person’s health, even if they are already seen to be physically active.(8) Health wise Sandra is doing very well avoiding prolonged sedentary behaviour, to further health gains however Sandra should attempt to meet government guidelines of two and half hours moderate or one and quarter hours of vigorous physical activity spread throughout the week.(8)

Independent of the time a person spends doing physical activity, sitting for long periods of time increases the risk of developing non-communicable diseases.(8)

Let’s look at three major effects of sedentary behavior and how they impact your metabolic processes, bone density and vascular health.

Metabolic processes
Sedentary behavior causes an increased level of fat in your blood – or plasma triglycerides if you want to get technical, high levels of which can increase your risk of heart disease.(5)
It decreases the levels of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL)(5) – Now, HDL carries the ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) as well as triglycerides and other harmful fats to your liver for processing, with higher circulating levels of LDL there’s an increased chance of plaque build up in your arteries resulting in a higher risk of coronary artery disease or stroke.(6)
Lastly, sedentary behavior affects the metabolism of carbohydrate through a reduction in insulin sensitivity; this can lead to type II diabetes.(5)

Bone Density
New bone is continually made within your body, if rapid increases in bone reabsorption are not met by the same increase in bone formation poor bone mineral content and consequently weakness will result. Sedentary behavior therefore increases your risk of osteoporosis.(5)

Vascular Health
An increase in blood pressure has been noted as a result of sedentary behavior.(5) Hypertension, also known as ‘the silent killer’ can result in a heart attack or stroke if left untreated.(7)

The ease of modern living has led us far from our remarkably fit hunter-gatherer ancestors where diseases such as above were rare.

To prevent future generations becoming ever more sedentary and increase risk of chronic disease, children need parental role models, they need rules on TV and computer time.(1)

For us adults… take micro-breaks at work to stand and walk, walk and talk whilst on the phone, opt for standing/walking meetings, standing desks, stand on the train home, walk during your lunch break, stand and stretch during TV adverts…the solutions are simple and easy. You just need to stand up to make a change.

BHFNC. Sedentary Behaviour. Loughborough University: British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health; 2012. p. 14.
Pate R, O'Neill, J. & Lobelo, F. The Evolving Definition of "Sedentary". Exercise & Sport Sciences Reviews. 2008;36(4):pp 173-8.
ACSM. Guidlines for Exercise Testing and Presciption. Tenth Edition ed: Wolters Kluwer; 2016.
WHO. Health Education and Promotion: Physical activity, background. Geneva: World Health Organization. ; 2015 [Available from: www.emro.who.int/health-education/physical-activity/background.html
Tremblay M, Colley, RC., Saunders, TJ., Healy, GN. & Owen, N. Physiological and health implications of a sedentary lifestyle. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. 2010; 35 725–40.
BHF. How I’ve reduced my Blood cholesterol. British Heart Foundation.org.uk: British Heart Foundation; 2017. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/publications/heart-conditions/reducing-your-blood-cholesterol.
Foundation BH. Hypertension: Your Questions Answered: Bristish Heart Foundation; 2017 [Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-matters-magazine/medical/high-blood-pressure-latest-news.
Health Mo. Eating and Activity Guidelines for New Zealand Adults. In: Health Mo, editor. www.health.govt.nz2015.
McDougall C. Born To Run. New York: Vintage Books; 2011. 287 p.


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