Increasing evidence that sitting makes you sick


Back pain. Organ damage. Muscle degeneration. Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Early death.

It turns out that sitting all day is worse than previously thought. These are just some of the health conditions researchers associate with a sedentary lifestyle.

And now, researchers have found, that's true even if you get regular exercise.

A new study from Northwestern University found that the picture is even more alarming for people age 60 and older.

For this group, each additional hour per day spent sitting increases the risk of becoming physically disabled by about 50 percent.

The finding comes from an analysis of data from the 2003-2005 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, which recorded the health, socioeconomic status and access to medical care of 2,286 adults ages 60 and older.

“This is the first time we’ve shown sedentary behavior was related to increased disability regardless of the amount of moderate exercise,” said Dorothy Dunlop, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Being sedentary is not just a synonym for inadequate physical activity.”

Dunlop told NPR News that $1 of every $4 spent on medical care is related to disability problems.

In the study, participants wore accelerometers around their waists to measure their physical activity. On average, the study found, people spent most of their waking hours being sedentary.

The Washington Post notes another study that found people who watched the most TV in an 8.5-year study had a 61 percent greater risk of dying than those who watched less than one hour of TV per day.

So, why doesn't regular vigorous exercise counteract the damage that comes from sitting?

Physiologist Marc Hamilton from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. told NPR News it's because muscles need constant activity.

"It takes a long duration of using your muscles throughout the whole day," Hamilton said.

Harvard Medical School recommends some ways to wean yourself off your chair during the workday: switch to a standing desk, or one that can adjust to sitting and standing positions. Or the school recommends, set your smartphone timer to go off every 30 to 60 minutes during the day. When the alarm rings, “Stretch and move around the office to avoid any prolonged sitting at one time,” Dr. Manson recommends.

And there could be even more benefits to getting away from your work desk, too.

Research from the University of Minnesota found that exercising while working could also boost productivity. 

The study, published by the online research publication PLOS ONE, found that both overall employee productivity and health improved when employees worked at a treadmill desk instead of sitting.

The study found treadmill workers also burned 7 to 8 percent more calories per day than before the study began and there was nearly a point increase in productivity – based on a 10-point scale – after participants got used to walking while working.

Next Up