12 Days of Fitness 2014: Day 10 – Sitting Worse Than Previously Thought

(This is Part 10 of a 12 part series to provide you with some helpful health and fitness tips over the holiday season)

seating-for-longIt isn’t exactly rocket science but we know that a sedentary lifestyle is not that conducive to a healthy lifestyle. A few years ago more research was coming out proving that theory to not only be true but to have more costly effects on our health. In present day 2014, more and more research has come forth indicating that not only is sitting detrimental to our health but that the amount of exercise one does may not even be enough to offset the negative effects of sitting. Kind of makes you want to get up and get your ass moving!

Sat Statistics

It is estimated that the average American sits 9.3 hours a day. A Nielsen company reports that the average American watches five hours of television during that same day, while other studies show that most Americans spend additional hours driving, internet surfing, texting, app game playing, etc. Those who live a sedentary lifestyle have often been referred to as couch potatoes. But for those that stay reasonably fit and active (3-5 days per week, approx. an hour each time) but still spend a considerable amount of their day sitting have been labeled by Nancy Clark, director of nutrition services at SportsMedicine Associates as “sedentary athletes”. Does that mean that you need to be active 24/7/365? No, but thinking that just because you exercise, whatever frequency that may be, warrants lots of “down time” could be like spinning wheels.

Compelling Research

A study by Australian researchers led by Dr. Geraldine Healy, research fellow at the Heart and Diabetes Institute at the University of Queensland, determined that longer than average bouts of sitting and lying down (independent of the total per diem veg-out time) are associated with a higher percentage of body fat, in women—although, curiously, not men. In the researchers’ words, “These findings provide preliminary evidence on the potential importance for human health of avoiding prolonged periods of being sedentary, independent of physical activity. [They] support findings from studies of the metabolic consequences of television viewing time.” Additional studies conducted by Healy’s team, Dr. David Levine and his fellow Mayo Clinic researchers, plus others, all come to the same conclusion, regardless of gender. Low levels of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (what Levine calls “NEAT”), or how much energy is burned from all physical activities “other than volitional sporting-like exercise” such as playing with kids, manual labor and dancing—are the source of America’s obesity epidemic. Other studies by Healy have shown that high TV watching and sitting time greatly corresponds to metabolic syndrome, the cocktail of disorders—including larger waist sizes, and increased triglyceride and blood glucose levels—that increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. And a 2010 study revealed that high TV time—independent of exercise—was associated with a higher risk of premature cardiovascular disease mortality. In other words, no matter how hard someone may work out, too much channel surfing can shorten his or her life.

Is It Really Just Sitting That’s The Cause of An Epidemic?

Not all the experts agree. Dr. David Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University in Kannapolis, N.C., says, “[Healy’s] studies are interesting, but it’s going to take a lot more evidence to be convincing. I feel ultimately they will be discredited due to their small sample size.” (The latest Australian study used only about 100 subjects.) As Levine puts it, we live in “a chair-enticing environment and sitting is not something for which humans are built, evolutionarily speaking”. Sitting weakens your joints, decreases metabolic rate and perpetuates fatigue and poor posture, often contributing to back pain.

And objectively speaking, says Holtorf, it may not matter how much or intensely we exercise. “It’s what the body perceives us as doing, and the body is historically more used to constant motion. Besides, the average person on the Stairmaster doesn’t really burn that many calories in an hour.”  Healy lays out the lamentable facts: “Even lean individuals store at least two to three months of their energy needs in adipose tissue, whereas obese persons can carry a year’s worth of their energy needs. Obesity is the cumulative impact of energy imbalance over months and years.”

Further complicating the picture, adds Holtorf, is the fact that our “catabolic mode”—or the rate at which we burn calories—depends on many factors, including our previous fitness level, genetics, even our previous dieting history. “One study showed that people who have dieted and lost weight had a 25 percent lower metabolic rate than others of the same age, body fat and weight. Other studies have revealed that women who over-exercise and diet also have a [s]lower metabolism. Dieting and overtraining can shift the body into starvation mode.”

Taking a Whole-Day Approach to Physical Activity

Healey believes the key to attaining that state is to take a “whole day” approach to physical activity and try to incorporate movement across the day, not just when you hit the running track or bike trail. “Since incidental movements make up the bulk of energy expenditure for the average person, every little bit helps. Office workers can stand while on the phone, walk to see a colleague down the hall and take the stairs instead of the elevator.” She also suggests incorporating less-expensive technologies such as using height-adjustable desks and moving bins and printers to central locations.

It is important, Holtorf argues, to develop a consistent routine. “In your 15-minute work break, do intensive exercise using a pull-up bar or light weights. This is better than taking a ‘brisk’ walk, which the body may not perceive as physiological stress.” Other ideas: Pace while making phone calls. One source suggested introducing walking treadmills for office workers, but that may be both logistically risky and financially prohibitory to accomplish on a large scale. But stability ball chairs are doable. Plus, people can bike to work, cities can build more greenways, politicians can recommend closing off downtown areas to traffic (as Mayor Bloomberg has in New York City), and, of course, educators can put physical education back into the school curriculum. “Exercise has been engineered out of our lives,” explains Levine, “and we have to re-engineer our work, school and home environments to render active living the option of choice.”

New research implies that even if people are physically fit, long, uninterrupted periods of sedentary behavior are bad for their health. This extended sloth can cause what scientists call “detrimental metabolic effects.” That is, it may mitigate, if not erase, the benefits of exercise and lead to a state labeled “couch potato fitness.”

See you tomorrow for Day 11 of the 12 Days of Fitness


Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.



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