A Simple Fix When You Don’t Have Time To Exercise

Short breaks from prolonged sitting can significantly improve your health

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Exercise is deservedly considered the best medicine. Yet possibly more harmful to your physical and emotional health than lack of exercise is another common problem: “sitting disease.”

According to the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Americans are now spending the majority, or roughly two-thirds, of the day sedentary. The damaging health effects of prolonged sitting has even been considered the new tobacco.

That may not be surprising to anybody with a sedentary job. Long, uninterrupted hours sitting at work or commuting make it hard to make time for physical activity. Yet, the wake-up call is that in addition to leaving less time for exercise and leisure activities, prolonged sitting poses its own unique type of harm to your body.

Here are the 3 main ways:

Your Cells Go Into Idle Mode

When you sit for more than 20 to 30 minutes at a time, your muscle cells go into power saving mode, and then automatically turn off. That shuts down their ability to break down glucose and fat.

Without waking your muscles out of sleep mode by standing up or pacing, you can develop fat around your waist, abnormal blood sugar, and abnormal cholesterol — a constellation of conditions called metabolic syndrome. Collectively, that increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Prolonged Sitting Increases Inflammation in Your Body

The more time you spend sitting, the more likely you are to develop whole-body inflammation. Inflammation can in turn increase your risk of cancer, heart disease, and dementia, and shorten your life.

Even when you factor out the amount of time you spend doing moderate to vigorous physical activity, prolonged sitting independently contributes to the amount of inflammation you develop.

An analysis of the NIH-AARP Diet and Health study is one of the largest among the studies showing the independent harm of prolonged sitting. This study included 240,000 adults who did the same amount, over seven hours a week, of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Despite this same level of activity, the group that spent more sedentary time watching television at seven or more hours a day had a 50% higher risk of dying from all causes and twice the risk of dying from heart disease compared to the group that spent less than one hour a day sedentary watching television.

Working Out Doesn’t Make Up for Prolonged Sitting

If you are hoping to bullet proof yourself from the damaging effect of prolonged sitting through exercise, you may be disappointed.

In 2014, researchers at University of Texas Southwestern found that you can undo the fitness benefit from a one hour brisk walk or light jog with six to seven hours of sitting.

How Can You Cure “Sitting Disease”?

Spend less time sitting may be the obvious answer but that isn’t necessary nor realistic if you have a sedentary job or spend long hours commuting. Your best defense is changing how your hours of sitting add up–whether they are continuous or broken up.

By simply breaking up prolonged sitting with standing or pacing, you can reduce your waist circumference, body mass index, amount of inflammation, as well as your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Other benefits from taking more standing breaks include less upper back and neck pain and improvement in your mood.

The powerful benefit of this simple change was shown in a 2008 Australian study. Independent of the total time spent sitting and the total time spent doing moderate to vigorous exercise, among the 168 adults studied, the group that took the most frequent breaks while sedentary had, on average a 5.95 cm smaller waist circumference, lower body mass index, better triglycerides, and lower blood sugars after meals than the group that took the fewest breaks.

So besides trying to undo a sedentary day with a good sweat at the gym (which is great if you can it in), a new paradigm for physical activity is breaking up uninterrupted sitting with standing and moving as much as you can, whenever you can.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Stand up every 20 to 30 minutes behind the computer
  • Take standing breaks during long conversations or meetings
  • Catch up with friends and family walking rather than sitting at the table
  • Stand or pace during phone calls
  • Get up during television ads
  • Tighten and release muscles in long commutes
  • Use a standing or treadmill work station

Originally published at drsharonbergquist.com.

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