The Sitting Dilemma – “Sitting is the new Smoking”

Article by Dr. Paul Kennedy
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Dr. Paul Kennedyby Dr. Paul Kennedy, Wellness Outreach Doctor – August 2013 Topic of the Month

Nearly two years ago in this space I wrote an article called “Don’t Just Sit There And Die!” As morbid as the title may have seemed, I followed it up in December of 2012 with an article called “Too Much Sitting” as a result of the continuing research into this area of inactivity.

Some recent research has uncovered even more information about our penchant for sitting which now averages between 55 and 75% of the time that we are awake.

In other words, if we are awake for 16 hours (and sleep for eight hours) we spend about 9 to 12 HOURS sitting! Moreover, the course of study known as Exercise Science now has a corollary area known as “Inactivity Science” which may be euphemistically described as the science of “why we sit and do nothing for so long every day”. I don’t mean to make light of this new scientific pursuit but it’s worth knowing that most of the new information regarding our activity levels is not good. In fact, it’s a little frightening.

But there is good news as well so I would like to focus on how we can help ourselves stay healthy and avoid many “acquired” diseases such as heart disease and diabetes with a short but effective technique that allows our bodies to use the energy sources in our blood (known as glucose) more effectively and even help prevent, to some degree, unwanted fat weight gain. These suggestions have been put forth as a result of research reviewed by researchers Michael Jensen of the Mayo Clinic and David Dunstan of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia. Their conclusions and suggestions concerning a sedentary lifestyle are data-based and “pursuasive” and indicate that excess sitting “should now be considered an important stand-alone component of the physical activity and health equation.”

It should also be noted that a typical thirty minute workout three times per week, although helpful, cannot erase all the negative physiological responses that our bodies have to inactivity. In other words, we can’t completely compartmentalize our personal fitness program (for example, a 30 minute “workout” three times per week) since being fit requires us to be physically active throughout the day far more than our sedentary culture allows.

And the buzz on the street is that “sitting is the new smoking” —in other words, over time its bad news!

A 2010 study by Alpa Patel of the American Cancer Society found that extra time sitting was associated with a 34% higher cancer mortality rate for women and a 17% higher mortality rate for men during the fourteen year study duration. My suspicion is that more men seem to have, on average, jobs that are somewhat more physical in nature than women and this may explain the large gender difference in mortality in the study. BUT, the point is that increased IN-activity (prolonged sitting) appears to be a silent killer. It simply supports one of the main points that I frequently make in my Fitness and Wellness seminar series and that is that we are evolved bi-pedal mammals that happen to live in the 21st century and we were designed to MOVE and NOT sit for hours at a time.

Researchers Michael Jenson and David Dunstan have suggested that individuals with sedentary jobs (i.e. desk jobs) should try to intersperse activity intermittently throughout the day. For example, it may be possible to take “walking” or “exercise” breaks about every 10 or 15 minutes for a period of, say, two to three minutes. By the end of the work day, this totals 16 to 24 minutes of activity. Now, even though this doesn’t sound like much added exercise, it is the FREQUENCY of the activity that is important. By simply getting up and moving periodically for even a brief period of time, the body is circulating more blood, taking in and using more oxygen, using and processing more blood glucose (blood “sugar”) and, more importantly, causing our cells (especially muscle cells of which there are billions) to become more permeable to that same blood glucose. This means more calories used or “burned” throughout the day produces in all probability, an improved stabilization and better utilization of our “blood sugar”.

Indeed, human beings were MEANT (designed?) to move on a regular basis and a continued lack of sustained movement is the WORST thing we can do for our health—at any age! So let’s fight back against being forced to sit for extended periods of time. The result will be better health and a more productive and healthier workforce. And remember that there is such a thing as a “standing desk” and a “treadmill desk”. Thankfully, both are becoming quite popular in the workplace. I’m just sayin’.

I’m Dr. Paul Kennedy and that’s the “Be Fit, Stay Fit” Topic of the Month for August 2013. Good luck with YOUR program! I KNOW you can do it!

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