Add sitting all day and lack of exercise to the list of risky behaviors that can lead to chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease, even a shorter lifespan.
Dr. Dion Gallant, medical director for primary care with Presbyterian Healthcare Services says sitting for prolonged periods can lead to problems in the neck and back, poor circulation which can include blood clots or varicose veins, and slower metabolism that can lead to increased blood sugar levels, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“These are all clearly associated with prolonged sitting and decreased exercise,” Gallant said.
Results of a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association bears out his experience. The study was based on data from the 2015-16 National Health and Nutrition Examination which surveyed around 5,900 adult men and women. Of those, nearly 26 percent said they sat for more than eight hours daily, while almost 45 percent said they were physically inactive.
“Both high sedentary behavior and physical inactivity have negative health effects – and evidence suggests the risk of premature mortality is particularly elevated when they occur together,” the study’s authors say.
“That’s what we see in primary care. I see diabetes, I see obesity, I see musculoskeletal complaints,” Gallant said.
The longterm effects of being desk-bound and sitting for eight hours a day and being inactive also show up in poor posture. Nick Martinez, a personal trainer at the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque, said the hip flexors – the muscles at the front of the hip that enable us to climb stairs, bend over or walk – become shortened and weaker with prolong sitting. Muscles of the back, shoulder and chest are similarly affected, causing the body to slump forward.
Gallant and Martinez stress the importance of regular physical activity to ward off the negative effects of too much sitting. But they say it’s critical to start slowly to avoid injury.
“Don’t go from nothing to a marathon,” Gallant said. “Any activity is better than none. Take it slow but start somewhere.”
If possible, he said, stand at your desk, take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk for a few minutes during breaks, or even have walking meetings.
Martinez said it can be helpful to join a gym where you have access to a free consultation with a physical trainer who can assess your physical condition, pinpoint your needs and help you set achievable goals.
“People say they want to be fit, but it’s important to figure out what that means to them, whether it’s losing weight or getting stronger,” Martinez said.
Equally important, he said, is being able to find a form of exercise that you enjoy so you can be consistent in pursuing your goal.
It’s helpful to build a rapport with a particular trainer, but that level of support can be beyond many budgets. Gyms usually offer free classes, and Martinez said this can be a good way to have fun exercising alongside like-minded people in a non-threatening environment.
Technology can also help to maintain consistency and achieve exercise targets. Devices like a pedometer or Fitbit can track activity, and numerous apps offer guided workouts or alerts to remind you to get up from your desk.
“Just standing is a positive step,” said Gallant, “If people will stand for a portion of the day – quarter of the day, half the day, whatever it is – as opposed to sit, they will burn more calories standing rather than sitting.”
He said he always talks to patients about the health benefits of incorporating physical activity into their daily lives.
“If we think it’s important for a doctor to counsel patients to stop smoking or to reduce other negative health behaviors that have such profound effect, then it’s equally important for us to bring up the benefits of exercise,” Gallant said.