Mounting research suggests that even if you exercise regularly, you might still succumb to the ill effects of too much sitting.
For example, a study published last year concluded that adults who spend an average of six hours a day in front of the TV will cut their life expectancy by nearly five years, compared to someone who does not watch TV.
Another recent analysis of 18 studies found that those who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least. According to lead researcher Thomas Yates, MD:
“Even for people who are otherwise active, sitting for long stretches seems to be an independent risk factor for conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease.”
An earlier study, published in 2009, also highlighted much of the recent evidence linking sitting with biomarkers of poor metabolic health, showing how total sitting time correlates with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other prevalent chronic health problems—even if you exercise regularly. According to the authors:
“Even if people meet the current recommendation of 30 minutes of physical activity on most days each week, there may be significant adverse metabolic and health effects from prolonged sitting — the activity that dominates most people’s remaining “non-exercise” waking hours.”
Continuous Daily Activity Linked to Healthier Aging
Most recently, a Swedish study concluded that those who live a generally active life have better heart health and live longer than those who remain sedentary for most of the day. This held true even for those who didn’t engage in a regular exercise routine. As reported in the featured article:
“Based on nearly 3,900 men and women over age 60 in Stockholm, the study adds to evidence suggesting that just sitting around may be actively harmful, researchers say.
‘We have known for 60 years that physical activity is important for the heart,’ said lead author Elin Ekblom-Bak… But until recently the research has mainly focused on exercise and has “forgotten” about the background activity that we do during daily life…
Whether someone exercises vigorously or not, it still usually only takes up a small fraction of the day. That leaves the rest of the time for either sitting still or engaging in non-exercise activities, like home repairs, lawn care and gardening, car maintenance, hunting or fishing.”
Avoiding the temptation to stay rooted to the couch may be particularly important for seniors. If you’re older, you’d be wise to make a concerted effort to spend more time doing low-intensity, everyday activities—anything, really, to cut down on the time you spend in a seated position. In the featured study, participants who were signed up at the age of 60 were tracked for more than 12 years, and the findings were quite telling:
- Those who reported overall higher levels of daily intermittent movement suffered fewer heart-related problems
- For every 100 of the sedentary people who experienced a heart attack or stroke, only 73 of the highly active group had such an event
- For every 100 of the least active who died, only 70 of the most active died
- Those who had high daily activity levels and engaged in a regular exercise program had the lowest risk profiles overall
Yet another recent study7 found that seniors who exercise experience less depression, dementia, and other chronic health problems, including diabetes and cancer. The benefit of exercise was major—increasing the odds of healthy aging as much as sevenfold! Best of all, even those who didn’t start exercising until they were in their later years were still able to boost their odds threefold.
What Makes Sitting So Detrimental to Your Health?
According to David Dunstan with the Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, the lack of muscle contraction caused by sitting decreases blood flow through your body, thereby reducing the efficiency of biological processes.
“In addition to engaging in regular health enhancing exercise, people should be encouraged to also think what they do during the long periods in the day in which they are not exercising,” he told Reuters.
Indeed, while regular exercise is undoubtedly important, it’s becoming increasingly clear that staying active—and by that I mean just movement, virtually any physical movement, especially standing up—as much as possible throughout the day is in all likelihood imperative for health and longevity. While I don’t discount the idea that poor blood flow contributes to the detrimental effects of chronic sitting, I believe there’s more to it than that.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, on this topic. She presents a very interesting scientific explanation for why sitting has such a dramatic impact on your health, and what you can do about it.
She approached the problem from a different angle than most. Curious to find out why regular exercise does not appear to compensate for the negative effects of prolonged sitting, her research focused on finding out what type of movement is withdrawn by sitting. What she discovered was astounding. She found it is the change in posture that acts against gravity that is the most powerful, in terms of having a beneficial impact on your health. Regularly standing up from a seated position was in fact found to be more effective than walking! According to Dr. Vernikos:
“The key to lifelong health is more than just traditional gym exercise, three to five times a week. The answer is to rediscover a lifestyle of constant, natural low-intensity non-exercise movement that uses the gravity vector throughout the day.”
What’s Gravity Got to Do with It?
The word “gravity vector” reveals Dr. Vernikos’ background and expertise with anti-gravity. She was in fact one of the primary doctors assigned to keep NASA astronauts from deteriorating in space. In an anti-gravity situation, your body deteriorates at a far more rapid pace, and interestingly enough, sitting for an extended period of time simulates a low-gravity type environment for your body.
Activities such as housecleaning, rolling dough, gardening, hanging clothes to dry, bending over to pick up a stray sock, reaching for an item on a high shelf… all of these fall within the spectrum of movements you would ideally engage in—more or less continuously—during daily life, from morning until night. Dr. Vernikos refers to these types of activities as “G habits.”
The reason why they’re so critical for your health is that when you move, you increase the force of gravity on your body. Again, anti-gravity environments speed up cellular deterioration, so the key is to disengage from the gravity vector—this low anti-gravity situation—as much as possible.
I’ve previously written about the health benefits of Acceleration Training, or Whole Body Vibration Training, in which you perform exercises on a vibrating platform such as the Power Plate. Acceleration Training works by increasing the force of gravity on your body—which is at the heart of issue, according to Dr. Vernikos. To a lesser degree, a mini trampoline will also increase the G forces on your body and provide similar, yet less extreme, benefits. A mini trampoline or rebounder subjects your body to gravitational pulls ranging from zero at the top of each bounce to two to three times the force of gravity at the bottom, depending on how high you jump.
The problem is that our modern society and our reliance on technology has reduced or eliminated many of these opportunities for low-intensity movement and replaced it with sitting. Some people have even taken to texting other family members inside the same house instead of getting up and walking into the next room. All of this sloth-like inactivity adds up and can take years off your life.
Based on double-blind research conducted by Dr. Vernikos, the minimum number of times you need to interrupt your sitting in order to counteract its cardiovascular health risks is in the neighborhood of 35 times per day. Interestingly, and importantly, her research also shows that sitting down and standing up repeatedly for 35 minutes does NOT have the same effect as standing up once, 35 times over the course of the entire day. In order to be effective, the activity needs to be spread out. This helps explain why vigorously exercising a few times a week still isn’t enough to counteract the ill effects of daily prolonged sitting.
Simple Techniques to Counteract the Harm of Sitting
Like many of you, I too spend far too many hours a day sitting in front of my computer and started to harvest the health deterioration of excessive sitting in my late 40s. I gradually developed back pain and could not stand for long periods of times without pain. I also become more rigid and less flexible. What was really astonishing though is that this all happened in spite of exercising six or more hours per week.
As I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of intermittent movement, I’ve incorporated a variety of strategies to counteract the ill effects of sitting. Besides frequently interrupting your sitting, another important factor that I’ll address in the sections below is posture, as poor posture can further worsen the detrimental effects of sitting for prolonged periods. Personally, I decided to incorporate some posture-strengthening strategies in combination with Dr. Vernikos’ recommendation to frequently stand up:
- First, to make sure I interrupt my sitting enough times each day, I use an online timer set to go off every 15- minutes. When I do sit, I have improved my sitting posture using two techniques from the Gokhale Method (see below). I now alternately “stretchsit” and “stacksit” and my back pain and flexibility have improved remarkably.
- Also, while Dr. Vernikos says that simply standing up and sitting back down may be enough to do the trick, provided it’s done frequently enough, if you are already in good shape you may want to do more. I decided to take it a step further. I add different body movements when I stand up during my 30-60 second break and do something like four jump squats or one-legged squats.
- I also regularly do Foundation exercises developed by Dr. Eric Goodman. In addition to increasing the gravitational forces on your body, these exercises also address weakness and imbalance in your posterior chain of muscles. Earlier this year I interviewed Dr. Goodman about his techniques, so to learn more, I suggest listening to that interview.
The Importance of Posture
Proper posture is truly foundational for health and most of us who live in industrialized cultures, including you, have far less than ideal posture. By understanding the functional biomechanics of your body, you can learn to optimize the way you move at all times. This in turn effectively prevents aches and pains from developing, and allows for optimal circulation.
Two effective methods, mentioned above, are Foundation Training, and the Gokhale Method, created by Esther Gokhale. Her method teaches you to return to what she calls “primal posture,” which is the way your body was designed to stand, sit, and move. For a more complete discussion and demonstrations of her techniques, please review my previous article, The Gokhale Method: Banish Pain by Relearning Proper Posture.
One of the key postural techniques Esther teaches is how to maintain a J-spine. Conventional advice tells you to “tuck in your pelvis,” which results in an S-shaped spine. This also causes you to you lose about a third of the volume in your pelvic cavity, which squishes your internal organs, compromising their function. When you tack on hours of uninterrupted sitting, it’s no wonder sitting can lead to so much dysfunction.
By carefully observing the posture of native peoples around the world—and toddlers too—Esther realized that a J-shaped spine is far more natural. The conventional S-spine is actually based on the norm of poor posture… When you search the annals of anatomical charts of the human spine, you’ll find that over time conventional medicine simply began to accept this norm as “normal,” if not “ideal.” However, as with vitamin D levels, this is not an instance where you want to simply fall within the norm. For optimal health, you really want to strive for an ideal posture.
A J-spine refers to a posture where your back is straight, your lumbar relatively flat, and your buttocks are protruding slightly, as illustrated below. You can also find free PDF downloads describing this posture on Esther’s website, GokhaleMethod.com. This biomechanically correct posture allows you to move freely, discourages pain, and allows your digestive organs to function without restrictions or blockages.
Remember Primal Posture When Sitting, and Stand up Frequently
As mentioned, in addition to getting out of your chair frequently enough—at least 35 times per day or more—maintaining proper posture while sitting can also make a significant difference. Esther’s method of “primal sitting” allows the bones in your spine to stack properly, thereby allowing the muscles alongside your spine to relax. Then, as you breathe, your entire spine lengthens and settles naturally. This movement stimulates circulation and promotes healing.
In the video below, Esther demonstrates how to use your back rest as a traction device to help you elongate your spine while sitting. By doing this, you will start flattening out your lumbar area, promoting a more beneficial J-spine posture.
This is an incredibly powerful and healing habit to get into and I would strongly encourage all of you to adopt it. Remember it is not so much the 2-3 Peak Fitness workouts you do a week that will keep you flexible and pain free but how you spend the bulk of your day. If you are sitting and don’t adopt a practice like this, you are looking for pain down the road. This habit will allow you to actually stretch your spine rather than compressing it while you are sitting. I’m so grateful to have learned this exercise as it has made a dramatic difference in my ability to move freely without pain.
Take Every Opportunity to Move Your Body
Research such as Dr. Vernikos’ is powerful evidence that many of the health problems people suffer today are linked to modern lifestyle modifications that are simply incompatible with optimal biological functioning. Fortunately, the answer is simple. Just revert back to a lifestyle that incorporates natural movement!
Using your body the way it was designed is one of the most powerful ways to optimize your health. As I’ve discussed in numerous occasions, high intensity interval training (HIIT) is yet another example of this, as it mimics the way ancient hunter-gatherers used their bodies. Modern research has also repeatedly confirmed that HIIT outperforms traditional aerobic cardio exercise on virtually every front.
If you have a sedentary job, standing up every 10 to 15 minutes may compensate for the majority of the damage from sitting. Also, pay careful attention to your posture. I recommend incorporating either Foundation Training or the Gokhale Method—or both. When you sit, pay attention to how you sit. And when you stand up, you can easily turn it into an opportunity to move into a Foundation posture.
Last but not least, instead of parking yourself in front of the TV at night, consider doing something else, or at the very least engage in some minor activity while the TV is on.
*Image of “woman” via Shutterstock