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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  • barada

    Suggestions for everyday extra exercise you can do YOURSELF:
    1. When you walk your dog, carry him on your back instead. This will be particularly beneficial if you
    have a St. Bernard. If you only have a cat, leave him/her at home, and walk with your bowling ball in your belt or back-pack.
    2. Get rid of all the chairs and sofas in your house, so you have no choice but to stand and walk around. You can even EAT standing up.
    3. Find a salt-mine near you and do volunteer work there. Nothing like loading salt-bags onto subterranean rail cars to build-up that aerobic fitness. And do WALK back up to the surface–Refuse to ride the railcar back up to the surface.
    4. Get an apartment on the 37th floor, and NEVER use the elevator.
    5. Do 40 push-ups every time you see some piece of ridiculous propaganda in the mainstream media.

  • Silver_Witch

    Skippy I think I am in love now – thank you very much – you made me giggle.

  • Silver_Witch

    Ohhh let me email my company and tell them they are killing me by not providing such a desk. I am sure they will get right on it. NOT!!
    Death is the end game after all.

  • This One

    Either way genius, we’re fucked.

  • cambridgemac

    I think you missed the humor and self-deprecation in emjayjay’s remark

  • Add in that too many Americans are scientifically illiterate, to the point that they don’t understand how science works.

  • Indeed, and it’s that kind of reporting that I think leads people to doubt science, especially those people (the majority) who don’t go any further to educate themselves. They read an article that says something that everyone in the world has been doing since the dawn of time is potentially deadly, be it eating meat, going out in the sun, or sitting down, or one of the many, many other risks of simply “living”, and can do nothing but scoff.

  • judybrowni

    Cute how you take the time out of your busy day to be a bigot.

  • It’s generally more a problem with the reporting than the studies themselves. Statistics run on percentages; the press runs on declarative sentences.

  • I tend to buy small lots, a holdover from when the grocery store was right at the bus stop. Plus the fact that whatever I buy has to go home on the bus. I take a tote. (I also tend to shop two or three different places — TJs is actually cheaper for some things than the Jewel, doesn’t carry some things that are staples for me.)

  • Ultimately, that’s the problem with these kind of studies, and especially how their results get dumbed down once they get translated through the mass media. There are an infinite number of variables involved in one’s health and life expectancy. When the takeaway ends up being ‘Sitting is killing you!’ it only serves as click bait, and not to actually educate people.

    Sorry, the majority of workplaces aren’t going to be implementing treadmill desks any time soon, and in pretty much every desk job I’ve ever worked, if I was up and milling around all the time, I’d probably end up, at the very least, reprimanded for not sitting at my desk and getting my work done.

    Eating poorly is a risk. Smoking is a risk. Overdoing anything is a risk. Walking across the street is a risk. Straining on stool is a risk. It’s simply not possible to calculate all the risk we absorb with every choice we make in our every day lives. We’ve all heard the stories of people living into their 90s, while smoking, drinking and not exercising. The best we can aim for is a little balance in our lives, and hope for some luck. I will always maintain that preventative medical care is the most important thing. See your doctor regularly, stay ahead of any potential problems… and don’t ignore things, assuming they’ll just get better on their own, when they do come up.

  • 2karmanot

    I always drag along a duffel bag when potato’ing at Trader Joe’s.

  • emjayay

    “Use a hand-carry basket when shopping when practicel” Don’t other people’s computers put a wavy red line under stuff like that?

    Oh, and the garage door opener idea is just stupid, although the overall concept isn’t. And no, I will not use a hand basket at Trader Joe’s instead of one of the small carts. There is a single line at the end which can have fifty or more people in it. And I do cruise every single aisle not to mention every single customer at least once every time, so there.

  • emjayay

    My parents and their brothers and sisters all lived into their 90’s without, with the exception of a bricklayer, much in the way of exercise besides everyday life. There is a hereditary component, but that doesn’t deny the validity of the research.

  • emjayay

    Or hours reading some gayish progressive blog on their computer, and commenting too.

    Oooops.

  • emjayay

    There is also some research that indicates that you also greatly benefit from some kind of exercise that increases your heart rate to a certain level which walking, while great, does not do.

    Riding a bike is much more interesting than running. No impact, and stuff goes by a lot faster.

    Lap swimming, although no-impact and whole body, is incredibly boring, relieved only by thinking about the nuances of your strokes, figuring out how to fit in with whoever is in your lane, and of course noticing cute guys in little swimming trunks. I do try to throw in some laps swimming as fast as possible to get that heart rate thing going. Usually at some point I realize I’m just in a haze of thinking and not really realizing there are other people there, which is probably a good mental thing as well.

  • emjayay

    I think it was Saab (ooops) that pioneered changes in auto assembly. But the idea of teams with everyone learning different tasks and switching around is I believe pretty commonplace at this point. As are robots doing most of the work.

  • docsterx

    The article suggests that walking for just a few minutes per hour helps. Make a trip to the bathroom, walk to the water fountain, walk somewhere during your breaks, (as suggested above) walk something to a colleague’s desk rather than emailing it, take the stairs, Mixing those during the course of a workday will probably easily give you three minutes of walking per hour.

    Another option: http://www.lifespanfitness.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/t/r/tr5000-dt7_model.jpg

    Don’t laugh, some companies are providing treadmill workstations. I’ve seen a few companies offering this as an option to a regular desk. I can’t remember which ones, but I was impressed that they had thought that far in advance about their employees’ safety. The employee can walk while working. If s/he tires, stop the treadmill and put a chair there. Sit for a while and then back to the treadmill. I’ve seen these set up for customer service workers, programers, general office workers, IT workers and others. You’re right about the sitting required for some jobs. Others, however, like many in the medical field, require constant walking – nurses going patient to patient, doctors doing the same, medical assistants, lab tech switching positions on instruments about hourly, respiratory therapists going throughout the hospital, pharmacists moving from one area to another, etc. Lots of others – fast food workers, delivery people, teachers and many others have walking built in to their jobs, too.

    I’m sure that many people who have sedentary jobs can figure out ways to spend a few minutes per hour walking that may be different from the above that work for their specific job. . Also, they can always go to management and discuss their concerns. Management may be receptive to these mini-hikes. In addition to the above studies, others have shown that prolonged sitting can lead to blood clots in the legs. That’s why it’s recommended, especially on airplane flights, that all passengers get up and walk around the cabin every hour. So even in your immediate boss is not happy with you being a little more mobile, you could make a case to your employee health department and/or risk management department and try to get them on your side.

    As far as businesses, most are not proactive regarding employee safety unless forced to be. They may only take action after a complaint is filed or OSHA does an inspection and finds violations. are proactive in preventing employee illness. Sometimes they have to be dragged into reality. Think back to the fights over getting safety equipment to protect coal miners’ lungs so they didn’t develop black lung. And, similarly, keeping others safe in their workplaces. When I used to work in hospital labs back in the day, we were told NOT to use gloves when handling patient specimens. The gloves would be too expensive to buy in bulk for as many as we’d need. We were also told that we should know how to handle specimens so as to not get contaminated. We’d handle specimens from patients with various forms of hepatitis, other infectious diseases, bare handed, sometimes with only a small dressing over any cuts we might have on our hands. We were also told that we didn’t need facemarks, safety goggles, etc. even after patient specimens had flown into the eyes and mouth of some techs. It took months of lobbying the department of pathology, the risk management department and employee health, among others before we made any progress. So people in sedentary jobs may need to join and present this information to their employers to work to get permission to get up and move a bit on an hourly basis. If our employers aren’t proactive, then we need to do it ourselves.

  • The_Fixer

    My own experience involves going from a largely sedentary job and hobby to changing my work and play environment. It became abundantly clear to me that doing all of that sitting was doing me no favors.

    Luckily, I changed jobs to one that allows me to walk more (taking care of computers that are spread out in a retail environment). I also took a second job that was the same as my old job, but with more flexibility (and a different commercial/consumer world). However, I try to do more of it standing, and am lucky enough to be able to walk a decent amount, and often.

    My recreation involves more walking and a lot of biking (when the weather permits). When I can’t bike for an extended period of time, I feel it in the form of aches and pains. That’s where mall-walking helps. Here in Wisconsin, with its long, cold winters, it’s tough to get out and play if you have an aversion to cold weather, and I am one of those who does. That keeps winter from taking its toll on me.

    But my concern is now that we know this about inactivity, what are we going to be able to do about it now that our work environments generally involve more sitting? It’s clear that because of automation and the growth of the computer tech sector, we are not going to have the opportunity for much on-the-job movement. Is everyone who does not work construction or do some kind of manual labor in their job resigned to become sickly potatoes?

    Now consider computer programming, a high-growth occupation. There’s little physical activity involved in doing that job – hours and hours of sitting. Are we going to have a lot of programmers with serious health problems in the future? We’re clearly becoming more computer-dependent we’re likely going to need more of those people, and we’ll need to keep them healthy.

    It’s clear (at least to me) that industry is very bad at creating sensible working environments – they only do it under threat of regulatory or court sanctions. I remember reading years ago about a Swedish company – may have been Volvo – that made it a point to move their workers from job-to-job, rather than specialize in one particular, often repetitive job. I don’t know what the ultimate take-away from that experiment was, but the preliminary findings were that the workers were much happier and felt more fulfilled. I can only surmise that the rate of repetitive stress injuries lowered, but that is just my logical guess based on the fact that workers are not confined to doing the same thing, over and over, day after day, they’re mixing it up.

    I think that industrial labor management in this country is going to have to change and embrace new working situations, both in the working environment and the nature of the work itself. I think that changing people’s duties and processes on a regular basis, and adding physical activity is going to have to become the norm if we want people to make it past age 50 without very serious and costly health issues cropping up.

  • I discovered the truth of this when I was retired (not by choice, but fortunately I was old enough to draw Social Security) — spent all my time at the computer and almost lost the use of my right leg, which required surgery to fix. At work, no matter what the job, I spent a lot of time on my feet, even when I was a receptionist — I bitched at management until they gave me responsibilities in addition to dealing with phones/visitors, and my computer was at the end of the counter, so I had to get up and move around to do my other work.

    Now I make a point of getting up periodically — little tasks that require me to move around — even when I’m working on the computer or watching TV (which is a recent development — I didn’t even have a TV for nearly 25 years, but I got tired of watching movies on my computer).

  • docsterx

    Everyone knows people who are sedentary and who live into old age, remaining relatively healthy. Everyone also knows of a high school football player who died of a heart attack at 17. The data doesn’t show that all sedentary people will die prematurely or develop one of the above-named diseases. It says that the RISK of doing so is increased in sedentary people. The study is also not looking at the genetics of those involved, environmental risks, behaviors and other factors that contribute to developing various diseases.

  • My father’s 98 and bitches when it’s too cold to go swimming. (He lives in Florida, and “too cold” is lower 70s.) Otherwise, he swims for a couple of hours every day.

  • judybrowni

    I get such a kick out of this, my father is 91 and his last regular exercise — other than walking from the door to the car — was in 1950.

    He’s can’t walk much now, but give me a fucking break, he’s 91!

    Aunt Grace walked across the street to her store, admittedly she’s using a walker at 89.

    Aunt Lena died in her sleep at 90, and her regular exercise consisted primarily of gossip.

    Im 64 and it’s I’ve lived in walk cities for 40 years, and now walk about 45 minutes a day at work, but the gym? Feh!

    Exercise classes bore the life out of me, jogging, running, screw that.

    Face it we modern humans have largely sedentary work, and genetics may have as much to do with logevity as anything else.

  • Rambie

    At least the trains, truck, and barges will employ more Americans than KeystoneXL.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    People who are sedentary at work or home are more likely to develop certain diseases, or even die.

    Research has shown that people who live sedentary lives die at a rate of 100%, while studies show that those who are active or very active have a 100% chance of dying.

  • Demosthenes

    An excellent, helpful piece!

  • This One

    You mean the one that will add a few more miles to the existing thousands of miles of pipeline networks already there? Keystone is nothing more than a symbol for divisiveness for but both sides. But then again stopping the Koch Brothers from making more profits is always a good thing. But then again…if the pipeline is not built, they’ll just use trains, truck and barges. How could that be a problem?

    http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/z14ywk/keystone-fight

  • Indigo

    Canadians get the cutest ideas going. Have you heard the one about the pipeline they want to run across the United States to transport their oil sludge to refineries in Louisiana?

  • Sally

    So ’12 hours sitting or lying down’ per day includes sleep? Are we to wake up every hour, get out of bed and do three flights of stairs before returning to sleep? My husband recently retired, and he spent the last three years working from home, on his computer, for 10 hours a day. He came downstairs fro lunch and dinner. He actually LOST weight, and has none of those diseases. My mother is 84, very sedentary, but managed to lose 10 pounds last year (believe you me, if I make it to 80, I will NOT be concerned about losing weight!) She walks up and down two flights of narrow stairs to do her laundry, one to let the dog in and out, and two to get to her car. About that garage door..not sure about yours, but ours is way too heavy to be lifting manually, and if you release the chain, someone has to rebook it to get it closed.

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    You’ll be so tired you’ll wish you were dead.

    My abuela spent the last 25 years of her life in a wheelchair. She had none of those diseases. Oh, I guess one could say that she had heart disease, but I sort of think her heart was just worn out after 96 years.

  • nicho

    People who are sedentary, either at work, at home or both are more likely to develop certain diseases ….. or even die.

    So, if we just keep moving, we’ll never die?

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