By Elizabeth A. Davis
Does this sound like your day? Get up, drive to work, sit in front of a computer at work, drive home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. If so, you’re not alone.
Millions of Americans spend their week days just like that—sitting for 60 to 70 percent of their waking hours. Fitness experts suggest people should exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Most Americans average about 5,000 steps per day when the recommended amount is closer to 10,000.
Researchers are now focusing their efforts on the epidemic of sitting. Much has been said about the amount of time Americans spend watching TV—about three hours per day out of five hours per day of leisure time. But there is another long stretch of time when many people are very inactive—at their desk at work.
Most Americans average about 5,000 steps per day when the recommended amount is closer to 10,000.Inevitably, it’s easy to find excuses for not exercising before or after work. But rather than try to squeeze in workouts before or after work, why not do it while you’re at work? Instead of sitting for hours and hours at a time, what about standing up every 30 minutes and walking down the hall or taking a long walk at lunchtime? Five-, 10-, or 15-minute bouts of exercise to break up periods of sitting do make a difference.
“It adds up. Every little bit counts,” says Frank Harrison, director of the Fitness Center at the UT Health Science Center.
“Instead of going to the vending machine by elevator, take the stairs. Even better, instead of going to the snack machine, put carrots in the refrigerator in a different office,” he suggests. “How many times do you email a person in your office? That’s lost social interaction and exercise.”
In the last five years researchers have turned more attention on the hazards of sedentary behavior instead of just the lack of exercise, says David Bassett, professor of kinesiology, recreation, and sport studies at UT Knoxville. He’s also co-director of the UT Obesity Research Center.
“Prolonged sitting can be hazardous to your health,” he says.
Researchers in Australia recently updated a report they issued 10 years ago about sedentary behavior.
“This is a new and challenging area for exercise science, behavioral science, and population health research. However, many scientific questions remain to be answered before it can be concluded with a high degree of certainty that these adverse health consequences are uniquely caused by too much sitting, or if what has been observed so far can be accounted for by too little light, moderate, and/or vigorous activity,” the researchers led by Neville Owen in Australia wrote in 2010.
But it makes sense that so much sitting is likely part of the increase in obesity and that it would lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. If so, it’s not a new discovery. Bernardino Ramazzini is the father of occupational medicine. An Italian physician, Ramazzini studied diseases related to different types of work and the effects of repetitive motions and posture.
He recognized the dangers of sitting—in 1700: “All sedentary workers . . . suffer from the itch, are a bad colour, and in poor condition . . . for when the body is not kept moving the blood becomes tainted, its waste matter lodges in the skin, and the condition of the whole body deteriorates,” Ramazzini wrote.
Some research has indicated that long periods of sitting could even be bad for people who are considered physically active and achieve the recommended amount of weekly exercise. Bassett says more studies are needed to show whether the presence of too much sitting, even in those who obtain sufficient vigorous exercise, is still harmful.
But sitting is becoming more and more prevalent in jobs, and there are fewer jobs that require physical activity.
A study of occupation-related physical activity over the last 50 years shows a decrease in the number of people employed in jobs that require moderate physical activity, such as farming, manufacturing, logging, mining and construction. Workers are now burning far fewer calories per day, contributing to an increase in the average body weight of men and women.
“In the early 1960s, almost half the jobs in private industry in the U.S. required at least moderate intensity physical activity, whereas now less than 20 percent demand this level of energy expenditure,” states the study published in May led by Timothy Church at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Jeremy Steeves, a UT Knoxville graduate student working with Dixie Thompson, head of kinesiology, recreation, and sport studies, completed a study this summer that gathered data from a group of overweight or obese and sedentary adults who watched TV for at least 90 minutes a day and stood up during commercials and stepped in place and another group who walked 30 minutes a day. The bottom line: There were no significant differences between the number of steps members of both groups took each day, meaning both groups benefitted.
“Physical activity can be successfully incorporated into traditionally sedentary TV-watching habits, and this may be an acceptable alternative to traditional approaches for increasing daily steps in overweight and obese adults,” Steeves concludes.
He believes that intermittent exercise performed during TV commercials is a concept that could be carried over into the workplace.
“Having a behavioral cue like a commercial break or a timer—or a computer program that breaks up your sedentary time—could be highly beneficial for an individual’s health,” Steeves says. “Taking breaks from sitting should also increase their productivity.”
So if you sat down to read this article, it’s time to get up and walk around.
Stand up! Sit less! Move more!
Here are some ideas for being more active during the day:
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Walk to a networked printer in a central location.
- Walk to a co-worker’s office instead of using email or the phone.
- Take a walking break on your lunch hour.
- Take a 10-minute walk-around break in the morning and afternoon.
- Park your car farther away from the door.
- Use dumbbells or exercise bands for strength training during TV commercials.
- Sit on an exercise ball periodically to strengthen core muscles.
- Stand when making or receiving phone calls.
- Invest in a sit-to-stand desk so you can go from sitting to standing at the push of a button.
- Have walking meetings.
- Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes, even if it is just to do some light activity.