According to experts, my instincts on this, sadly, are not wrong. When I ask Heather Milton, MS, RCEP, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center, just how unhealthy it is to sit this many hours per day, her answer isn’t exactly reassuring: “It’s not good,” she says. “Research shows that our metabolism starts to slow, and our risk for metabolic disease actually increases if we consistently sit for over 30 minutes at a time. Sitting, or sedentary time, is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease as well.”
With that said, Dana Hunnes, PhD, RD, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, points to a meta-analysis study that showed that exercising for 60 to 75 minutes per day helps to eliminate the increased risk of death from sitting. Hunnes adds that reframing that exercise from one marathon session into smaller, bite-sized fitness bursts can make it feel more achievable, and to Milton’s point it can help to lower your risk for metabolic and cardiac diseases caused by parking it on your couch for eight solid hours. “You could, for example, set a timer at work every one hour and 45 minutes and take those last 15 minutes of that two hour time block to briskly walk or jog, or you could walk some stairs in your building, and that would certainly accomplish the same thing,” she says.
If you’re among the three out of four people who are definitely not making it to 60 to 75 minutes of moderate exercise per day no matter how it’s spliced, all is not lost. To optimize your health as a chronic sitter, Milton advises getting up out of your chair frequently. “Ideally, [you’d get up] every 30 minutes—maybe move from seated to standing for two minutes,” she says. “You can grab your laptop and use the kitchen counter [to work], or if you are so lucky to have one, move to a standing desk.” For bonus points, try moderate intensity exercise during these breaks, which she describes as movement that increases your heart rate and breathing, while allowing you to still maintain conversation.
If you’re otherwise active, this interspersed activity is optional; however, standing and moving around a bit every 30 minutes or so is not. It’s a must—full stop. Even fitness trackers like the Apple Watch are game to remind you how much you’re standing in the midst of an otherwise sedentary work life. The stand reminder gives you a nudge using a haptics every hour on the hour to move for at least a minute to help you close the innermost ring on your watch.
During the breaks that you set for yourself (or that your fitness tracker reminds you to take) Milton recommends moving your body through some full range motions to help with mobility. “This can help reset your posture as well as reduce muscle tightness from holding the same position,” she says. And since muscle and joint pain can result from too much sitting in less than optimal conditions, she also suggests you pay attention to your work setup. “Ideally, you are able to keep a slight recline in your chair, and screens just lower than your eye line to ease your gaze to reduce forward neck position,” she says. “Also, be sure to keep your keyboard at a horizontal position with your elbows, so you don’t have to keep your arms lifted and flexed or lean forward.”
When I ask if it’s beneficial to invest in an under-the-desk elliptical or similar machine in order to multi-task, Milton tells me there are some randomized control studies that show using this equipment to be effective in reducing sedentary time, which in turn reduces the onset of slowed metabolism. Treadmill or cycling desks are also, of course, an option for multi-taskers, though they have been shown to decrease productivity.
The bottom line is that if you’re sedentary for the bulk of your waking hours, extracurricular exercise (in the form of 30 minutes to an hour a day) is not enough to mitigate your increased risk for disease development. If you can’t find ways to sit less, your best option is to set an alarm to go off every 30 minutes as a reminder to stand, stretch, and move around a bit. This may be especially important as the coronavirus pandemic forces us into our homes and onto our couches since this is likely resulting in less organic movement throughout the day overall (remember: TV time is sedentary, too!).
So, am I screwed out of good health by my need to earn a living? Not necessarily… though TBH. I only stood once while writing this article—which definitely took longer than 30 minutes—and it was to get food. Time to ring (read: set) the alarm…
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