Health & Fitness: Sitting Harms Your Health


Kate Cracknell reports that research suggests that extended bouts of sitting harms your health. But why, how bad… and what can we do about it?

Sitting down. It’s something we all do a lot of. And when we say a lot… Research suggests we spend as much as 80% of our working day seated. Then we come home from work and many of us will spend hours sat on the sofa watching TV.

So, what does that matter? After all, sitting down is pretty innocuous… isn’t it? Well, actually, no. Sitting has in fact been dubbed ‘the new smoking’ – this generation’s big lifestyle challenge, with hidden but serious repercussions for our health. Let’s quantify that.

Research from Australia indicates that every hour of sitting cuts approximately 22 minutes from our lifespan. Yes, you read that right. In fact, the World Health Organisation identifies physical inactivity as the fourth biggest risk factor for death, after high blood pressure, smoking and high blood glucose. It’s estimated to be responsible for some 3.2 million deaths each year, including over 670,000 premature deaths (before the age of 60), and is the root cause of 27% of diabetes.

Physical inactivity is also linked to heart disease, various types of cancer, muscular and back problems, depression and stroke.

So, if we absolutely have to sit at our desks – if that’s unavoidable – is there anything we can do to help ourselves? Actually, yes: new research from the US suggests the risk of early death isn’t only about the total amount of time spent sitting. It’s also about how that sitting time is spread throughout the day.

Specifically, the study found that adults who sit for one to two hours at a time without moving have a higher mortality rate than those who accrue the same amount of total sitting time, but split across a number of shorter spells.

The health risk was lowest among those who, for the most part, managed to sit for less than 30 minutes at a time. Why take the risk? As is so often the case, there are other studies that say sitting down isn’t a problem as long as you meet the World Health Organisation’s physical activity recommendations: at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week for adults.

And there are certainly studies to show how building regular activity into our day can make a big difference – replace 30 minutes of sitting with 30 minutes of activity to reduce risk of early death by up to 35%.

With that in mind, here are a few recommendations:

– At work, take regular breaks from your computer, even if it’s just to stretch or walk around the office for five minutes.

– Hold ‘standing meetings’ with your colleagues, rather than all sitting around a table; even better, try ‘walking meetings’ – talk as you walk.

– Stand while you have your breakfast and/or lunch.

– Park a little further from the office and walk the rest of the distance. If you take public transport, opt to stand on the train or bus rather than sit.

– At home, take regular breaks from the TV; modern technology means even live programmes can be paused, so there’s no excuse not to get up and stretch your legs every half an hour.

– To get yourself in the habit, you could even set an alarm every 30 minutes as a prompt to stand up. Repeat throughout the day and it soon adds up!

Sitting harms your health? Let’s try to change your habits and move!