Sitting Too Much Is Harmful for Our Bodies, Minds, and Spirits

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Get up, stand up! Evidence is mounting that sitting for long stretches of time — in a car, at a desk, or on the couch — is bad for our health. A sedentary way of life and spending hours sitting down seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Dr. James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, professor at Arizona State University, and a national leader in obesity research, and Dr. Wayne Stokes, director of Sports Medicine Rehab at NYU Langone Medical Center, explain how sitting causes health problems and what we can do to counteract them.

Research by Dr. Levine and others reveals that  sitting for more than 2 hours a day is directly linked to health problems like obesity, metabolic disorders, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and high cholesterol. One Australian study showed that adults who watch an average of six hours of television day over their lifetimes will die 4.8 years sooner that adults who don’t sit for hours watching television.  

“It’s rather like having a Ferrari idling for three months. It gets clogged up with grit and oil and sludge, and that kind of sludge is what you’re seeing in the muscle bands,” Levine said. He also said that moving around improves intuitive and creative thinking. “There’s cognitive dulling and we’re just not as smart as we could be” when we sit all day.

Even regular exercise at the gym isn’t enough to counteract the negative effects of sitting at our desks and in front of the television for long stretches. We have to move more and more often. Levine and Stokes recommend using standing desks, even a treadmill desk, or, at the very least, standing or moving every 15 minutes or so while you’re sitting at work — get up to talk on the phone, go talk to colleagues instead of e-mailing them, take short walks and standing breaks. In addition to the metabolic problems caused by inactivity, Stokes points out that sitting leads to slouching and poor posture can cause back and shoulder pain that many people who sit in front of a computer all day experience.

But don't worry if you've been too sedentary — it’s never too late to make changes. “If one embarks on a program of chairlessness, of getting out of the chair and starting to move more,” Levine said, “one can achieve very, very significant improvement.”