Sitting can be deadly, even if you exercise regularly

Canadian research suggests that too much sitting can be deadly.

People who are sedentary, either at work, at home or both are more likely to develop certain diseases (like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer) or even die.

This increased risk of morbidity and mortality persists, even in people who exercise regularly.

The risk is highest for those who get no regular exercise. People who have sedentary jobs, even those who exercise for an hour or more multiple times per week, still have a higher risk for developing these illnesses or even dying prematurely.

The World Health Organization estimates that 3+ million people die per year, worldwide, because they are not as active as they should be.

The scientists went through 47 previously done studies trying to see if excessive sitting was linked to increases in development of some diseases and/or in premature deaths.

Couch potato via Shutterstock.

Couch potato via Shutterstock.

The researchers, from the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute-University Health Network, classified “sedentary activities” as things like: sitting, driving a car or being a passenger in public transportation, using a computer, watching TV and similar activities. If the amount of time per day spent in these activities was 8 hours or more, the person was classes as having a sedentary lifestyle.

The researchers looked at sedentary individuals’ increased risk of developing diseases such as: type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, uterine cancer, cardiac disease and early death. Though the scientists suspect that a sedentary lifestyle is probably related to developing other diseases as well.

One of the studies that they reviewed showed that fewer than 8 hours/day of sitting time was associated with a 14% chance of not being hospitalized. Another study showed that sedentary people who don’t exercise at all, can have up to a 90% greater chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

The group feels that the explanation for this increased risk may have to do with the following. Standing (and walking) make use of many more muscles and increase metabolic rate, thereby burning additional calories. Sitting makes use of fewer muscles and the metabolic rate declines. When fewer calories are burned, there is a chance to become obese, as well.

While regular exercise is beneficial, their feeling is that one or two hours of exercise every day, can’t make up for the other 12 hours that may be spent sitting or lying down.

Here are some suggestions that may help reverse this trend in sedentary people. Of course, regular prolonged exercise is important. For example, doing some aerobic exercise or resistance training for an hour or more several times per week (Make sure that you consult your doctor before starting a regular exercise program.)

• Getting up and standing or walking for 1 to 3 minutes every hour
• Use the stairs rather than using elevators or escalators
• Walk, jog or bicycle for transportation, when possible
• Stand or exercise (treadmill, etc.) while watching TV
• Try to decrease the amount of time you spend sitting with the goal being to wind up with 2 to 3 fewer hours of sitting per day
• Walk to your colleague’s desk carrying that printout rather than emailing it
• Spend more time walking the dogs, playing with the children or exercising with friends
• Use a hand-carry basket when shopping when practicel
• Walk to public transportation rather than drive
• Don’t use remote controls to open garage doors, adjust lighting, regulate temperature, change channels. Get up and walk to do these manually
• Meet friends and go for a walk before you go to a bar or restaurant

In general, try being more active however you can. You can probably think of a number of ways to become more active, even if it’s just a few minutes more each day. Many of out time-saving and labor-saving strategies and devices may be convenient, but could really be deleterious to our health.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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