Sit Down, Spark Up…
This month’s blog is based heavily on an article I read a few years ago in ‘Runner’s World’ entitled ‘Is Sitting the New Smoking?’ With a certain degree of cynicism, used to scaremongering headlines in mainstream media, I cast a wry eye over its contents – and was horrified. Normally scare stories can be picked apart by the most basic questioning of a 4 year old, but this was different – the research quoted was thorough, extensive and, in most cases, conclusive. Whilst the slightly dramatic headline isn’t fully justified it not only cast light on the dangers of sitting down for extended periods, but showed how little regular, structured exercise will alleviate those dangers. It was the last part of that sentence that made me sit up and take notice. It was not just the non – exercising, sedentary population that was at risk, but the ‘active couch potato.’ In other words, the fairly typical gym goer who may do their 3-5 sessions per week, but has a desk based job and spends much of their free time sat down. Whereas previous research and advice was that 150 minutes a week of physical activity was enough to stave off myriad health issues, it seems that in terms of overall morbity and mortality, if you spend your life on your bum, you may as well light up…
Put simply, we are not designed to be sedentary. Usain Bolt can reach speeds of 30mph and Mo Farah can cover 13 miles in an hour. Now whilst these may be extreme examples of the body’s capacity for movement it’s our first clue: our bodies NEED to move and if they don’t, they turn against us. We each have two arms and two legs (most of us anyway) and anyone who was listening in Science classes knows that this happened for a reason – more efficient movement. When you sit for an extended period of time circulation slows thus using less blood sugar, burning less fat and increasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. One study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that anyone sitting for 6 hours or more a day (bearing in mind the average person will actually sit for 9 hours a day) had an 18% increased risk of developing diabetes compared with someone sitting for 3 hours a day or less. A 12 year study of 17,000 Canadians damningly discovered that, regardless of age, bodyweight or exercise time, the more time people spent sat down, the earlier they died.
The dangers of a sedentary lifestyle are not unknown however, so why, you might ask, was I so shocked at this? The answer is simple: no amount of structured exercise can offset the damage caused by sitting down. And the reason for this has only recently been discovered.
In his research, Professor Marc Hamilton recently discovered how a key gene called lipid phosphate phosphatase or LPP1 behaves. LPP1 helps the body prevent blood clotting and guards against inflammation of the cardiovascular system, basically it’s pretty damn vital in protecting against heart disease and attacks. LPP1 is hugely suppressed whilst sitting down – this much was already known – what surprised Hamilton is how little LPP1 was impacted by exercise if the muscles were inactive most of the day. It’s a double whammy basically, this vital gene is in low levels if you sit and you cannot bring those levels up with your exercise regime.
Feeling depressed? Unsurprising perhaps, considering the above, even less surprising considering your position. A 2013 study of 30,000 women found that those that sat for 9 hours a day were far more likely to suffer from depression than those that sat for less than 6. Again this seems to be down to the circulatory problems associated with being on your bum: poor circulation leads to fewer feel – good hormones like serotonin being able to reach your brain.
More Exercise – Even Higher Risk!
Unfortunately, yes, you did read that right. The risk though is psychological NOT physical. Of course exercise has tremendous health benefits, despite all of the above – it just can’t offset a lot of the risks associated with being otherwise sedentary – and yes, a resounding YES!!, you should exercise regularly. The problem is guarding against the mindset of ‘earning’ your sofa time. A comprehensive study from Illinois State University found that exercisers are, on average, 30% less active on days that they exercise. And who can honestly say that if you have a particularly strenuous exercise session in the morning, you may be a little less active in the day. It happens, I know because I’ve done it! Flip it around and we can see the ‘self – preservation’ mindset. Ie you have a high intensity session planned for the evening after work so you, almost subconsciously, reduce your activity levels – maybe taking the lift, driving where you could walk, forgoing a lunchtime stroll. But like I say, the issue is purely psychological and so awareness of the risk is the first step to overcoming it; making a conscious effort to keep your activity levels high on exercise days (and, of course, resisting the urge to ‘treat yourself’ with that slice of cake and cappuccino with cream on it because you ran for 30 minutes) will go a long way to ensuring it doesn’t happen.
Toolkit for Movement
If this blog has left you feeling concerned (and writing it, certainly did me!) then let me finish on a positive. Firstly, in the five years since I originally wrote this I can honestly say that daily movement became a much higher priority for me and with the advent of FitBit since then, along with a slight raising of awareness, in 2018 it is relatively simple to hugely increase movement for even the most desk – bound individual.
1: Postural change. Most of the problems associated with sitting come from reduced circulation so do what your mom and teachers told you not to: fidget. Fidget like a 5 year old in an assembly! Seriously, moving around in your seat and at your desk will improve that circulation and offset some of the damage of sitting.
2: Stretch your legs. So many people have tight hamstrings and poor lower body mobility, mainly because you all sit with your knees constantly flexed. Stretch them out, wiggle your toes, get that blood flowing again.
3: Stand up, walk around. All of you can do this! Every hour, get up, pace – go to the toilet even if you don’t need to. This is where FitBit comes into its own I feel. We assume that just because we are in the office that we need to be still. But when you’ve got your FitBit telling you it’s time to take 250 steps, this appeals to our sense of problem solving and forces a little creative thinking. One of my clients was horrified that he was taking an average of just 3000 steps a day. Within a week of getting a FitBit he was upto 8000. One of the methods he used was to pace the office whilst replying to emails! It also encouraged him to be more active outside of the office and if he feels his steps are a bit down a quick ten minute walk around the block after work can yield another 1000 steps. Still down at the end of the week? No problem – a long walk over the weekend can easily bring those steps up. I simply cannot emphasise the importance of this enough. Around two hours TOTAL of walking is all it would take most people to reach 10,000 steps. In the 16 hours or so we each have (assuming you don’t sleepwalk) it is not an intimidating target if you are genuinely looking for the opportunities.
4: Take up darts. Or Twister, hopscotch, anything. Anything that encourages you to get on your feet in your leisure time. Driving to work, 8-10 hour day, driving to the gym, 1 hour exercise, driving home to sit and watch TV / read a book is still a shedload of sitting down. Since Albie started school, I’ve become hyper aware of the need to keep both of us moving and I’ve spoken of the joys of the great outdoors in a previous blog, so if you’re short on ideas feel free to read that. For those of you with older children just remember this: the bigger the kid, the greater the challenge!
I really hope this article has the same effect on you that the original material had on me. That being to question your own levels of activity and what you can do to improve it because honestly, even with the nature of my job and a 6 year old to keep up with, I’m probably falling somewhere between that 3-6 hour range, although since writing this article, I probably veer closer to 3 most days now. Do what you can to move, and move frequently. Your body will thank you in the long term.
Right, I’m off to play tig.
Original Article appeared here: https://www.runnersworld.co.uk/health/is-sitting-the-new-smoking