QJScience: Stand up!

Are you sitting as you’re reading this? If you are, stand up, take a lap around the room, and then get back to reading.

New research suggests that “sitting is the new smoking”, with excessive sitting being linked to increased risk of disability, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight gain, some cancers and premature death.

What’s ironic is that sitting is a practice engrained in our culture. We’re accustomed to using phrases such as ‘take a seat’ and ‘sitting on the fence’. Sitting is also associated with status; in ancient Egypt, chairs were symbols of high status. Today, politicians often win a seat, and monarchies sit on a throne.

Canadian physical activity guidelines recommend that adults get 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on a daily basis, but some scientists are saying this isn’t enough. Dr. Genevieve Healy from the University of Queensland has come up with the term ‘active coach potato’, referring to people who are very active for short periods of time followed by long periods of being inactive. If we hit the gym once a day but sit for the rest of the day, our health can still be negatively impacted. However, scientists aren’t undermining the importance of the gym, and say that people who go to the gym and then sit around are still better off than people who get no daily physical activity at all.

How exactly does sitting impact our health? According to Dr. Mark Tremblay, the director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity research group at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, effects can be acute or chronic. In a matter of days, prolonged sitting can negatively impact the function of insulin, which in turn causes glucose levels to rise. Cholesterol levels also change, and our bones grow weaker as furniture takes the load off our skeletal system. Furthermore, sitting often initiates other habits that negatively impact our health, such as snacking or smoking.

Studies have also shown the long-term chronic effects of excessive sitting. One study compared heart disease in bus drivers who spend most of their day sitting to conductors who spend most of their day standing. Drivers were found to be at significantly greater risk of developing heart disease than conductors.

The idea isn’t to constantly engage in vigorous physical activity, but to periodically interrupt sitting. This change in posture preserves our biology and constantly challenges our homeostasis. The more variation incorporated into daily posture, the greater the health benefits.

So how can we sit less? Research has shown that people are best able to sit less when their workplace encourages them to do so. This can be done through incorporating walking/standing meetings and sit-stand desks. These desks can be raised and lowered so that you can check your emails, drink your coffee, etc., while standing.

Current research has been unable to pinpoint exactly how much sitting is too much. But the general message is to sit less throughout the day and to try and stand up every 30 minutes.

Now that you’ve finished reading this, stand up!

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