By Dr. Mercola
Over 50 percent of American men, and 60 percent of American women, never engage in any vigorous physical activity lasting more than 10 minutes per week.1This despite a growing body of research clearly showing that “exercise deficiency” threatens your overall health and mental well-being, and shortens your lifespan.
That said, even if you fall into the other half of the population that exercises or are even a highly competitive and fit athlete, you may still endanger your health simply by sitting too much.
For example, one 2012 analysis2 that looked at the findings from 18 studies found that those who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least.
Worse yet, it appears that temporary vigorous exercise can’t even compensate for the damage incurred by prolonged daily sitting!
In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that staying active—and by that I mean engaging in virtually any physical movement—as much as possible, throughout the day, is critical for health and longevity. It even appears to be more important, in the big scheme of things, than a regularly scheduled fitness routine…
Sitting Down Too Much Raises Your Risk of Heart Failure
Besides increasing your risk of metabolic problems, researchers warn that the combination of sitting too much and exercising too little can more than double the risk of heart failure in men.3, 4 As reported by USA Today:5
“The risk of heart failure was more than double for men who sat for at least five hours a day outside of work and didn’t exercise very much compared with men who were physically active and sat for less than two hours a day… The risk was lowest for men who exercised the most and sat for fewer than two hours a day…
Government statistics show almost half of people report sitting more than six hours a day, and 65 percent say they spend more than two hours a day watching TV. ‘If you’ve been sitting for an hour, you’ve been sitting too long,’ says James Levine, co-director of Obesity Solutions at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and Arizona State University.”
This study6 also confirms the alarming findings of earlier ones, which is that a regular fitness routine does NOT counteract the effects of prolonged sitting. The study—which followed more than 82,000 men for 10 years—found that these risk correlations held true no matter how much they exercised!
Last summer, I interviewed Dr. Joan Vernikos,7 former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, about the hazards of chronic sitting, and how to avoid succumbing to its ill effects. Her research has revealed there’s a simple answer.
The key is to make sure you move your body frequently throughout the day. The act of standing up from a seated position has been found particularly effective at counteracting the detrimental health effects of sitting.
I firmly believe that a reasonable goal is to get up four times every hour or every 15 minutes while you are sitting. Once you are engaged in a project, it is really difficult to remember to do this so an alarm might be helpful.
I personally use XNote timer that can be downloaded for free. Once you download the program you can go to the “More” section at the bottom of the program and click “Always On Top” so the application doesn’t get buried on your computer.
You should then click on “Timer” and set it to 15 minutes. You may then click “Start” and when the timer goes off there will not be an alarm sounded, but a flash will appear on your screen to remind you to stand up and perform the exercises.
Like everything in life it is a matter of making choices. I spend 8-12 hours a day in front of a computer . There are certainly times when I am in the flow and choose not to stand up but for the most part that is a rare occasion.
I welcome the interruption and delight in the fact knowing that I am giving my body a break from the abuse of constant sitting and I love it when I move and feel my joints crack and get more flexibility as I know this habit of providing motion to my body will let me function pain free for decades to come.
At-Work ‘Workouts’ — A Practical Health Intervention
The easiest and simplest strategy is to merely stand up, and then sit back down. But the evidence suggests you’d be wise to go a little further—especially if you only exercise a few times a week, or not at all. There are plenty of ways to get movement in during your work hours. The following videos, featuring Jill Rodriguez, offer a series of helpful intermittent movement beginner exercises you can do right at your desk. For a demonstration of each technique, please see the corresponding video in the table below. I suggest taking a break to do one set of three exercises, anywhere from once every 15 minutes, to once per hour.
Technique #1: Standing Neck-Stretch: Hold for 20 seconds on each side.
Technique #2: Shoulder Blade Squeeze: Round your shoulders, then pull them back and pull down. Repeat for 20-30 seconds.
Technique #3: Standing Hip Stretch: Holding on to your desk, cross your left leg over your right thigh and “sit down” by bending your right leg. Repeat on the other side.
Technique #4: The Windmill: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, then pivot your feet to the right. Push your hip out to the left. Raising your left arm skyward, and your right arm toward the floor, lower your body toward the floor while looking up, then raise your torso back to standing position. Repeat on the other side.
Technique #5: Side Lunge: Starting with your feet together, take a medium step sideways, and bend down as if you’re about to sit. Use your arms for balance by reaching out in front of you. Return to starting position, and repeat 10-20 times. Repeat on the other side.
Technique #6: Desk Push-Up: Place hand a little wider than shoulder-width apart on your desk. Come up on your toes to make it easier to tip forward. Do 10 repetitions.
Technique #7: Squat to Chair: With your feet shoulder-width apart, sit down, reaching forward with your hands, and stand back up in quick succession. Do 15-20 repetitions.
Technique #8: Single Leg Dead Lift: Place your right hand on your desk, and place your weight on your right leg. Fold your torso forward, while simultaneously lifting your left leg backward. Do 10 repetitions on each side.
Technique #9: Mountain Climber: Get into a push-up position on the floor. Pull your right knee forward to touch your right wrist or arm, then return to push-up position. Repeat on the other side. Try to pick up the pace, and do 20 quick repetitions.
|Standing Neck Stretch||Shoulder Blade Squeezes||Standing/Seated Hip Stretch|
|Windmill||Side Lunge||Push up|
|Squat to Chair||Single Leg Dead Lift||Mountain Climber|
Advanced Intermittent Movement Routine
Below are some more advanced suggestions from fitness expert Lisa Huck. These movements are the ones I’m currently working with to interrupt my sitting. I suggest bookmarking this article so you can easily find all of these helpful videos, demonstrating each movement. Again, ideally you’ll want to do at least one of these exercises every 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can combine two or three in a three-minute break once or twice every hour.
The more frequently you get out of your seat, the better, because the frequency is the most important aspect. Based on double-blind research conducted by Dr. Vernikos, the minimum number of times you need to interrupt your sitting in order to counteract its cardiovascular health risks is in the neighborhood of 35 times per day.
Her research clearly shows that sitting down and standing up repeatedly for 35 minutes does NOT have the same effect as standing up once, 35 times over the course of the entire day. In order to be effective, the activity needs to be spread out. This helps explain why vigorously exercising a few times a week still isn’t enough to counteract the ill effects of daily prolonged sitting.
#1: Standing Hip Flexor
#2: Standing Calf Stretch
#3: Standing Inner Thigh Stretch
#4: Standing Back/Buttocks Stretch
#5: Kneeling Lunge Matrix
#6: Hip Flexor, Hamstring, and Quad Stretch
#7: Side Lying Twisting Back Stretch
#8: Chest Stretch
#9: Standing Hip Flexor Stretch
|Standing Hip Flexor||Standing Calf Stretch||Standing Inner Thigh Stretch|
|Standing Back/Buttocks Stretch||Kneeling Lunge Matrix||Hip Flexor, Hamstring, and Quad Stretch|
|Side Lying Twisting Back Stretch||Chest Stretch||Standing Hip Flexor Stretch|
For even more suggestions, check out the following articles. The videos in the table below, featuring Michael Volkin, can also be used as a guide:
- Huffington Post: “10 Easy At-Work Workouts”.8 This HP article has many excellent suggestions for movements you can do just about anywhere, anytime, even while still sitting. For example, you can perform leg extensions while remaining seated. Or, keeping your back erect, lift your knees above the chair, squeezing your abdominal muscles, and hold for as long as you can.
- Washington Post: “A Workout At Work?”9 12 Movements suggested by experts in body mechanics include marching triceps kicks, standing hamstring curls, knee lifts, desk pushups, side lunges, and more. This article includes animated graphics demonstrating each easy move.
- Greatist.com: “33 Ways To Exercise At Work”.10 This list of “deskercises” is chockfull of great ideas. From wall sitting while reading, and calf-raises while standing at the printer, to discreet isometric glutes exercises like the buttock-squeeze that can be done anytime, you’re bound to find several to fit into your daily work routine.
- The Atlantic: “Workouts To Do At Work” (video).11 In an effort to bring some measure of “cool factor” to at-work workouts,Atlantic editor James Hamblin offers up an array of suggestions in this humor-filled video. As he says, while stationary jogging may raise some eyebrows, taking the stairs is always an option.
|Speed Jacks||Squats||Squat Jumps|
|Scissor Squats||Twisting Squats||Twisting Lunges|
|One Leg Triple Jumps||Chair Poses||Single Leg Squats|
What Is It About Sitting That Makes It So Harmful?
Space medicine has done a lot to help us understand why sitting is so detrimental. Dr. Vernikos was in fact one of the primary doctors assigned to keep NASA astronauts from deteriorating in space. In a previous interview, she explains that the human body deteriorates at a faster speed in anti-gravity situations, and, as it turns out, sitting for an extended period of time actually simulates a low-gravity type environment!
Physical movements such as standing up or bending down, on the other hand, increase the force of gravity on your body. Again, anti-gravity environments speed up cellular deterioration, so the key is to disengage from this low anti-gravity situation as much as possible by standing up and moving about.
The problem is that our modern society and our reliance on technology has reduced or eliminated many of these opportunities for low-intensity intermittent movement and replaced it with chronic sitting, typically staring in one direction. Some people have even taken to texting other family members inside the same house instead of getting up and walking into the next room. All of this sloth-like inactivity adds up and can take years off your life by speeding up cellular deterioration.
Another Key: When You Do Sit, Use Proper Sitting Form
Other factors come into play as well of course, such as poor posture, which can affect the function of your internal organs, and the lack of blood circulation that results from lack of movement and poor sitting form. I’m convinced that, in addition to getting out of your chair frequently enough, maintaining proper posture while sitting can also make a significant difference. As posture expert Esther Gokhale, creator of the Gokhale Method, explains:
“In our stack sitting method (which is really healthy sitting, primal sitting, if you will), you have your behind out behind, but not exaggeratedly. That’s very important. Then your bones stack well and the muscles alongside your spine are able to relax… Now when you breathe, your whole spine lengthens and settles, lengthens and settles. There’s this movement which stimulates circulation and allows natural healing to be going on as you sit.
If you sit poorly, whether relaxed and slumped or upright and tense, you’ve lost all of that. So do we want to blame [all the adverse health effects] on sitting, or do we want to blame it on the poor sitting form? That’s my question.”
To learn more about proper posture, and how to sit properly, please see my interview with Esther (Gokhale Method hyperlinked above), in which you’ll also find video demonstrations of healthy stack sitting techniques. Using proper posture while seated, combined with frequent interruptions where you stand up and, ideally, perform some of the intermittent movement exercises suggested above, can go a long way toward counteracting the ill effects associated with sitting.
What Are Your Recommendations?
If this is a topic that interests you half as much as it does me, I would encourage you to bookmark this page and play with the concept. I’ve only been experimenting with this approach for about half a year and am in constant revision mode.
There are loads of exercises that one can do in one to two minutes that would serve to interrupt the sitting that causes damage. So if you find one you really like, please create a video of it; upload the video to YouTube, and then post your link in the comments below. We will review all the entries and add exercises to the videos above that we feel would serve to help you avoid the damage caused by chronic sitting.
Sources and References
- 1 Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults December 2010 (PDF)
- 2 Diabetologia 2012: 55(11); 2895-2905
- 3 Circulation: Heart Failure 2014; 7: 21-27
- 4 American Heart Association January 21, 2014
- 5 USA Today February 12, 2014
- 6 Circulation: Heart Failure 2014; 7: 21-27
- 7 Dr. Joan Vernikos
- 8 Huffington Post February 21, 2014
- 9 Washington Post, Workout at Work Infographic
- 10 Greatist.com May 17, 2012
- 11 The Atlantic January 21, 2014