“Prolonged sitting is making you fat and slowly KILLING YOU!” In the past several years, the media has been broadcasting warnings like this about the health risks of sitting too much. Maybe the headlines have been a bit sensationalistic, but the research is there, and now there’s another twist to the story: Newer studies say that even if you work out regularly, if you have a sedentary job where you spend all day long sitting in a chair, and you also sit all night at home, you may still be at risk.
Physiologically, there are distinct effects between prolonged sedentary time and too little exercise time. Research has shown that chronic unbroken periods of muscular unloading associated with prolonged sedentary time can have negative biological consequences.
Even though the calories you burn while standing still are very low, standing elicits electromyographic and hormonal changes. NASA has done extensive zero gravity research showing the metabolic consequences of extreme muscular unloading and there are interesting parallels being drawn here.
Physiologically, it has been suggested that that loss of local muscle stimulation (contraction) due to sitting leads to suppressed skeletal muscle lipoprotein lipase activity and glucose uptake. By contrast, the mere act of standing involves isometric contraction of the anti-gravity (postural) muscles. Yet in the past, standing still would have been called “sedentary” behavior.
There’s another new wrinkle in the story: The latest research also suggests that you could meet what is considered an ideal guideline for physical activity, but if you also sit for extremely long periods, there could still be negative consequences. In other words, your formal workouts may not undo some of the negative consequences of long periods of sitting.
They have actually coined a name for this phenomenon – “THE ACTIVE COUCH POTATO”
An example is the person who works out regularly, or even jogs or bikes to and from work, but who sits all day long at his job for 8 or more hours and then spends several hours watching TV or surfing the internet in the evening.
One study found a strong association between metabolic risk and TV watching time even when physical activity was 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise. They also said that this association may be stronger in women than in men.
Because these types of studies only show associations, it’s difficult to say with certainly that too much sitting specifically causes adverse health consequences. However, better scientific measurement with tools such as accelerometers has given us more insights than the older studies that were based only on surveys of self-reported TV and sitting time.
It’s also difficult and always has been, for health organizations to make broad physical activity guidelines for the entire general population.
Nevertheless, the latest research is pushing fitness experts and public health officials to send more messages that include not only guidelines on how much and what kind of formal exercise to do, but also to specifically reduce sedentary behaviors like TV watching and computer time.
They’re also calling for a distinction between too much sedentary time (particularly sitting) and too little exercise. In particular, they’re recommending that you break up sitting time whenever that’s possible.
Researchers in the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study found beneficial associations in metabolic risk markers just from the presence of breaks in sedentary time. That could be as simple as transitioning from sitting to standing or from standing still to starting to walk. They also found an association between a higher number of breaks in sitting time and beneficial changes in waist circumference, BMI, triglycerides and blood glucose.
When news reports hit the media previously about the sitting – obesity – health connection, some people shrugged it off as common sense or inconsequential. However, I think the idea that you might be an “active couch potato” is not something to shrug off at all, because unless you do formal workouts in addition to holding a physically-active job, the active couch potato group includes the majority of fitness-conscious people in our modern, technologically-based society today.
Many people work out diligently at least a few days per week, but they sit behind a desk for 8 hours without more than a lunch and bathroom break or two, and then when they get home, it’s straight for the couch/TV or the computer/internet.
A strong focus on nutrition and portion control can ensure weight loss despite a low activity level, but according to these latest findings, a minimalist workout program may not be enough to overcome all the negative health effects of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.
I do agree that some of the news headlines can be a bit over the top (“Sitting is killing you!”). But considering the increasing amount of time people are spending on the computer/internet, and the way technology has changed all of our lives since the obesity crisis started to escalate, I believe this is a message we should take seriously.
This got my attention on a personal level because it wasn’t so long ago that my lifestyle changed in a way that put me behind a desk and in front of a computer even more than most nine to fivers.
For nearly a decade and a half, I worked in health clubs, where I was up on my feet and on the gym floor the majority of the day, as a personal trainer and club manager. When I became a full-time writer, researcher, author and internet publisher, I found myself glued to a desk and computer screen for 10-12 hours a day, sometimes longer.
Many people agree that too much sitting time is a legitimate concern, but have responded to this latest health news with exasperation because they feel trapped by virtue of their 9 to 5 desk jobs. We are a knowledge and technology-based society today and we’re not going backwards to a predominantly labor-based society any time in the near future.
But that’s not something to get frustrated about. I’m now in the same boat as many other people, but I’ve stayed in shape with great health and so can you. The solutions are simple:
1. Break up your sitting time as much as possible.
If prolonged sitting time is unavoidable, at least get up out of your chair at regular intervals and stretch, do a few non-sweat-inducing exercises, or walk around a bit. You can set fitness trackers like a FitBit to nudge you on the hour to take a couple hundreds steps before returning to your chair. If you’re really stuck at your desk, at least stand up whenever you can, or even work at a standing desk.
2. Substitute sedentary leisure time with physical leisure time.
Take a portion of your sedentary leisure time, particularly TV and web surfing, and replace it with active but fun leisure activities like sports, recreation, house or garden work, physical hobby work and walking. (One of my favorites: watch most of your TV only while on a bike, treadmill or stepper. Seriously, why not?)
3. Increase your daily physical activity beyond the gym.
Think constantly about how you can move more and live a more active lifestyle – every single day. (Do some research on NEAT: non-exercise activity thermogenesis and consider using a pedometer (such as a fitbit) to track your daily steps. It can be a real eye-opener when you compare your daily step count to standards set by health organizations. Falling in the “sedentary” category is very unhealthy. This is the current “hierarchy of stepping”:
1. 5,000 steps per day or less (sedentary)
2. 5,000 – 7,499 steps per day (low active)
3. 7,500 – 9,999 steps per day (somewhat active)
4. 10,000 – 12,499 steps per day (active)
5. 12,500 steps per day or more (highly active)
4. Continue diligently with your formal training programs.
Include at least 3 weekly resistance training sessions and 2-3 moderate to intense cardio training sessions of your choosing. For health, experts today are recommending at least 150 minutes of moderate (intentional) exercise a week. That could be a 30-minute brisk walk 5 days a week. In my experience, when you get up around 5 or more hours of moderate to vigorous training every week, when combined with good nutrition, that’s a level where you start seeing a major impact not only on health but also on body composition, even if you have a desk job and otherwise sedentary lifestyle.
5. Remember, nutrition is priority #1.
It’s possible to out-eat even the most active lifestyle. If you’re active, but still struggling with body fat, then your nutrition may need an overhaul. You can learn more about fat-burning nutrition in Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.
One Final Tip:
For accountability and motivation, enter one of our Free Fitness challenges, like the 1 Million Step Challenge. Check out our contest calendar to see when the next event starts that you can enter: Burn the Fat Challenge Contest Calendar.
Founder & CEO, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
Author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle
Author of The BFFM Guide to Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details
Too Much Sitting: The Population health Science of Sedentary Behavior, Owen, N. et al, Exercise and Sport Science Reviews, vol 38, No 3 pp 105-113, 2010
Medical Hazards of Prolonged Sitting, Basset DR, et al. Exercise and Sport Science Reviews, vol 38, No 3 pp 101-102, 2010
Objectively measured sedentary time, physical activity and metabolic risk: The Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study (AusDiab), Diabetes Care, vol 21, no 2, pp 369-371, 2008.