Too much sitting doesn’t just put you at risk for bulging disc and tension headaches — it’s now considered as dangerous as smoking. (1) But guess what? You may be able to eliminate your increased risk of early death caused by too much sitting at work by exercising one hour a day.
That’s the verdict a team of scientists came to after publishing a paper reviewing 16 other studies looking at more than 1 million people’s sedentary behavior and death risk. That news may come as a wave of relief, especially if you’re reading it, well, sitting behind a screen.
The researchers found that at least an hour of moderate-level physical activity a day (things like cycling at about 10 mph or brisk walking) could cancel out the increased risk of death associated with a sedentary lifestyle. For the purposes of this study, they found one hour of exercise canceled out the negative effects of sitting 8 hours a day, something that’s all too common in office settings. The study found exercising an hour did not completely eliminate the risk associated with increased sitting due to too much TV time, though. (2)
Too much sitting is now linked to a host of diseases, including diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease. And get this: The lead author of one study reviewing studies of over a million subjects combined, stated that about 300,000 cases of dementia could be prevented each year if everyone lived physically active lives. (3, 4)
Main Takeaways of the Too-Much-Sitting Study Series
- People who sat for 8 hours a day — but were physically active — enjoyed a much lower risk of death compared to people who sat for fewer hours a day, but were not physically active. This drives home the importance of physical activity, no matter how many hours a day you sit. The benefits of exercise are far-reaching.
- Physical inactivity costs the world economy $67.5 billion a year in lost productivity and healthcare costs.
- Physical inactivity is linked to more than 5 million deaths a year.
- A minimum of 1 hour of physical activity a day eliminated the increased risk of death associated with sitting for 8 hours a day. That’s powerful!
- People who sat for long periods of time and also lived inactive lives faced the greatest risk of death.
- Only about 25 percent of people in the study met the minimum one-hour-a-day exercise threshold to eliminate the risk of death associated with sitting 8 hours a day.
- This study suggests the World Health Organization’s guidelines of 150 minutes of physical activity per week is simply not enough for office workers or others who are chronic sitters.
- 80 percent of students worldwide are not getting the WHO’s recommended 150 minutes of weekly moderate intensity exercise. (4)
Too Much Sitting: Can Exercise Really Fix Reverse the Damage?
While the large review study we discussed earlier provides science-backed inspiration to get moving, there’s conflicting evidence regarding how big of a role exercise plays in reversing the damage created by too much sitting. For instance, the American Heart Association says exercise isn’t an antidote for too much sitting and that we need to find ways to reduce sedentary time, too. (5)
That same idea is echoed in a 2014 report published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, where researchers discovered that two hours of sittings erases the cardiovascular benefits gained from 20 minutes of exercise. (6)
In 2015, Toronto researchers published another large review study and concluded that too much sitting is detrimental to your health, regardless of exercise. Of course, exercising helps blunt the effects, but not completely, according to this study.
Another interesting nugget of data to come out of this study? Prolonged sitting (characterized as 8–12 hours or more of sitting a day) increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 90 percent. (7, 8)
In other words, it’s not one or the other. We need to exercise more and sit less if we want to live. It’s really that simple.
How to Eradicate Too Much Sitting
With too much sitting now as life threatening as smoking, we need to take every opportunity to get more movement into our lives. That doesn’t mean you have to sign up for marathons, but it does mean that sitting too much needs to be avoided at all costs.
Employ my exercise hacks, for instance. Even fidgeting at your desk, standing up for part of your workday, walking during your kids’ dance or soccer practice, or squeezing in a quick burst fit workout when you’re really time strapped helps. Here are some other ideas:
- Moving meetings
- Standing workstations
- Foam rolling breaks
- Fartlek workouts if you want to make running more fun
Final Thoughts on Too Much Sitting
Avoiding too much sitting can be quite a task, particularly for people who commute to office-based jobs. But when you look at the statistics — that physical inactivity is now blamed for 5 million deaths a year — it’s clear we need to get up and moving however — and whenever — we can.
It’s not all or nothing. Even if you can’t exercise an hour a day, doing any form of physical activity can help blunt some of the damage done by excess sitting.
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