By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
I’m hearing from so many of you who are struggling with finding the time, energy and motivation to exercise, or even get outside for a walk most days. Between working from home, gyms being closed, winter weather and almost nowhere to go during this lockdown, so many people are barely moving during their work week. For those of you who track your steps, you’ll notice that your missing an easy 5000-6000 steps per day that was simply acquired moving around and commuting. This actually makes a very big difference in your metabolic rate, energy levels, and eventually leads to significant disease risk.
Risks of too much sitting
I’m sure you’re aware that too much sitting is not good for your health, but there have actually been countless studies explaining how this works. Here is a brief summary of some of the health risks of sitting:
Sitting increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity
In a New York Times article by Olivia Judson an evolutionary biologist, she wrote about a short experiment with men who walked a lot (10,000 steps per day) who were then asked to cut their activity back to 1,350 steps per day for just 2 weeks. By the end of two weeks, all of them had a change in how they metabolized sugars and fats, had a noticeable change in their body fat distribution – carrying more weight around the middle. This happened in only 2 weeks!
Several studies clearly correlated extended periods of sitting with a reduced ability to regulate glucose in the bloodstream leading to metabolic syndrome, which then increases risk for type 2 diabetes. A large study in 2013, suggested that sitting less and moving about more was more important than vigorous exercise to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Sitting also increases the risk of obesity: you quite simply burn more calories standing compared to sitting, which over time adds up to a significant difference in metabolic rate.
Prolonged sitting is linked to increased cancer risk
Christine Friedenreich, an epidemiologist at Alberta Health Services-Cancer Care stated in a 2011 conference that our culture of sitting may be responsible for 173,000 cases of cancer each year, and most notably 49,000 cases of breast cancer and 43,000 cases of colon cancer. There are also links with lung, prostate and endometrial cancer to inactivity. It seems that the longer you sit, the higher your risk of cancer. On a positive note, simply breaking up long bouts of sitting with just a few minutes of light exercise can lower your cancer risk. These brief periods of exercise lower waist circumference, reduce insulin resistance and lower inflammation – all risk factors for cancer.
Excessive sitting and Alzheimer’s and dementia risk
An interesting article in the journal PLOS ONE, showed that a sedentary lifestyle was associated with “reduced medial temporal lobe thickness in middle-aged and older adults.” The study with adults from age 45 to 75 described how prolonged sitting is tied to brain atrophy as a precursor to cognitive decline and memory loss, and that physical activity even at high levels, does not offset the harmful effects of sitting for prolonged periods. It seems that a sedentary lifestyle could be a significant risk factor for dementia.
Sitting for extended periods is linked to more anxiety and depression
Even before the time of lockdowns and social isolation, prolonged sitting at work has been linked to more prevalence of anxiety and depression. An Australian study showed that sitting for 6 or more hours per week for work caused intermediate levels of psychological distress, independent of leisure time physical activity. I know that most of you are sitting far longer than 6 hours per day for work right now, and often without much of a break!
Another study with almost 9000 women, aged 50-55 found that depressive symptoms were much higher in those who sat for more than 7 hours per day, compared to those who sat for less than 4 hours per day.
Simple strategies to increase your daily activity
Until I started looking at the research, I wasn’t aware how much of a health risk all of this sitting is creating. I’ve certainly heard about weight gain, more anxiety and depression, and low energy over the past months, and I wonder how much of this is due to the sudden onset of a very sedentary work-from-home life that many of us are living in. I’ve put together some simple tips to increase your daily activity, and some more long-term suggestions if it looks like you will be working from home for a whie. The most important thing to note is that a 30-60 minute workout a few times per week doesn’t fully negate the effect of prolonged sitting! It is still helpful for your cardiovascular system, but does not make up for 12 hours plus of sitting in a day.
- Find an outdoor hobby – hiking, walking, cycling, running, exploring neighbourhoods, photography,… anything to get you outside regularly and enjoying it.
- Consider a standing desk, or a platform to put on top of your desk to create a standing station. Building yourself up to a 50/50 ratio of sitting and standing through the day is apparently optimal. While you’re at your standing station you can do squats, leg lifts, use a foot massage mat, or just roll a ball under your feet. Moving around a little will reduce strain on your feet and back.
- Set reminders to get up and move around every hour at least, or ideally every 30 minutes. This may seem tedious or even annoying, but this very simple practice changes many of the risks described above. Stand up, shake out your legs, roll your shoulders back, get a glass of water, a breath of fresh air,…
- Take a mid-day break while the sun is out. I’m hearing so many people discouraged about with the short days, and not motivated to get outside in the dark mornings and dark evenings. Take advantage of the flexibility of working from home by building in a mid-day break.
- Stand or walk around when you take phone calls, and consider switching some video meetings to the phone for this purpose. You can pace, walk your stairs or even take a walk outside.
- Track your steps. This is the simplest way to stay accountable with your activity level each day. You want to aim for at least 7,000 steps per day, which is simple if you get outside for a couple of short walks, but takes some creativity if you’re mostly at home.
- Consider a treadmill under your desk so you can walk very slowly (ex. 2 miles per hour) while you work. There are treadmills with collapsible side rails that fit under desk easily.
As you’re reconsidering your work-days, remember that it’s the frequency of physical movement that is most important, not the intensity of the movement. You need to get up and move regularly through the day to break up the blocks of sitting down.
I hope this short article has inspired you to change how you are working, especially if you’re working from home. It does take some discipline and reminders to create a new habit, but you will notice some positive changes – first with energy and mood, and later with metabolism.