Our sedentary lifestyles are killing us. But is exercise enough? New research says no.
We’re all gonna die…
But some of us sooner than others.
If you live in a developed nation like the US or Canada, then you’re probably not gonna die from malaria, AIDS, or malnutrition.
Folks like us are much more likely to kick the bucket from heart disease, cancer, or stroke.
These so-called diseases of affluence are largely caused by lifestyle.
By lifestyle we mean cigarette smoking, eating sugary and fatty foods, not eating enough fruits and veggies, drinking too much alcohol, and lack of exercise.
In other words, things that are in our control, actions we take or fail to take.
We’ve been told that if we quit smoking, eat right, and exercise, then we can prevent these diseases.
But recent research suggests that sitting and TV watching are independent risk factors for death, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Fitness professionals talk about how you can’t out exercise a bad diet. Well as it turns out, you can’t out exercise a sedentary lifestyle either.
Sitting too much is risky
A study published in 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tracked the lifestyles of 240,819 US adults aged 50-71, over about eight and a half years.
Overall time spent in sedentary behaviors was positively associated with mortality. In other words, people who sat more died more.
People who watched more TV had much greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (like heart attack) as well as from cancer.
And get this — exercise only slightly reduced that risk.
People who watched more than 7 hours of TV or videos in a day had a 60% greater risk of dying over that 8 and half year period than people who watched less than 1 hour a day.
Basically, watching TV more than about an hour a day is slow suicide.
And YouTube or other streaming video is probably no different, nor are video games, or even Facebook.
In fact, if you are sitting down reading this right now, you might want to stand up.
Exercise more, sit less, kill your television
Check out this graph.
This is a rough approximation of a graph from the paper (you can click on those radio buttons to see more).
Basically what it shows is this:
- The less these people exercised, the more likely they were to die (as compared with the most fit and least TV-watching group which was given the reference baseline 1.0).
- The more TV these folks watched, the more likely they were to die, especially for the über couch potatoes.
- Exercise didn’t completely offset time spent watching TV. You’ve gotta exercise and not be sedentary.
Here’s a startling statistic: people who watched over 7 hours of TV a day and rarely or never exercised were 2.8 times more likely to die from all causes during the course of the study than those who watched less than an hour of TV a day and exercised 7 hours a week.
But it’s even worse for cardiovascular disease.
By comparison, people who watched over 7 hours of TV a day and never exercised were 4.2 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who watched less than an hour and exercised like a fiend (7 hours a week).
So clearly exercise is important, but it’s not enough.
Not watching TV or otherwise sitting around on your butt is also important.
Together they can make a huge difference.
The most important takeaways from this study
Takeaway number 1:
While everyone’s been freaking out about sitting, from this study it appears that up to 6 hours sitting a day is pretty low risk. Slightly better is 3-4 hours a day . But a little sitting won’t kill you.
You don’t need to be as extreme as this guy who gave up sitting for a month. That’s just dumb.
However, if you are sitting more than 9 hours a day on average, you are putting yourself at a needlessly high health risk.
And it’s really easy to sit more than 9 hours a day. Our entire society is designed around sitting for most of our waking hours.
Before reading this research, I was easily sitting 11-14+ hours a day myself.
For my day job, I work 6 hours x 5 days a week, sitting at a desk. My commute on those days is about 90 minutes there and back. That’s already 7.5 hours of sitting.
To get under 6 hours, I can work according to the pomodoro schedule: 25 minutes focused time, 5 minute break, then repeat this 4 times before a longer break.
If I get up and move my body during each 5 minute break, that’s at least 8 x 5 = 40 minutes I’m not sitting. It’s also just a great way to stay fresh, focused, and productive.
For the longer break, I can go on a 30 minute walk outside. Then usually I have 20 minutes or more of tasks to do standing as well. So 40 + 30 + 20 = 90 minutes of non-sitting time at work which cancels out my driving sitting time.
Then I just have to not do any sitting before or after work on work days and I’ll be under the 6 hours. Since I have a standing desk at home, this may be doable.
If you work normal 8 hour days or even longer, then you’ll need to get a standing desk or an adjustable height desk (here’s one you can build for under $200). There’s just no getting around it, so best suck it up and figure out how to make it happen.
Note that standing all day sucks, maybe worse than sitting all day even, so an adjustable desk or more than one desk (sitting desk and standing desk) is the way to go if you work all day at a computer. And transition gradually into standing more so you don’t get too fatigued.
Takeaway number 2:
Sitting and watching more than an hour or two of TV a day is risky…and we should probably include YouTube videos, video games, Facebook, Twitter, porn, online gambling, and watching funny cat videos in that 1-2 hours.
That means cutting out most modern forms of online entertainment, or getting a standing desk and standing up, or doing it while walking on the treadmill. Seriously.
These two things are major lifestyle changes, but that’s the thing — it’s our lifestyles that are causing our health problems. So it’s going to be a big deal to change that.
So what can we actually do to make these major changes?
My top 7 science-based tips for preventing death-by-sitting
Ok, so sitting is deadly. What can you do about it?
1. Keep a time diary for a week. Set an alarm on your phone to go off every 30 minutes during waking hours, and write down what you were doing during that time, and whether you were sitting, watching something on the screen like TV, or doing something else. That will give you a more accurate picture of how much time you really spend sedentary.
2. If you’re chained to your screen, get a standing desk, or both a sitting and standing desk, or an adjustable height desk. Note that standing all day is painful, so if you have a standing desk take your breaks sitting or walking around. And don’t sweat it if you have to sit 4 to 6 hours a day, that’s fine. Just don’t make it 9+.
3. Watch less TV. Cancel your Netflix subscription, move your TV into a closet, or do whatever you have to do. Your life depends on it. And remember, other sitting and staring at screens probably also counts as TV in terms of mortality risk. An hour a day may be OK, but more than that and you’re committing slow, steady suicide. Get professional help you if you need it, seriously. And if you work on a screen, take lots of breaks.
4. For every hour that you spend sitting, get and move 1 to 3 times during that hour, for 1-5 minutes each time. There’s some other research which shows significant positive benefits from tiny movement breaks like this, and moderate intensity is better than low intensity. But you don’t need to go all out — save that for your main exercise sessions.
5. Exercise. Yes, it’s not enough by itself, but it is very, very important. Aim for 3-7 hours a week of moderate to vigorous intensity movement. Moderate intensity can be walking fast. Really, the more exercise the better, as long as you are adapting to it and not overtraining.
6. If you can bike or walk to work instead of driving, do it. If it takes 30 minutes to get to work this way, that’s 5 hours of moderate intensity exercise per week right there, and an hour less sitting each work day.
7. Make it fun! Replace TV watching with learning and becoming more engaged with life. Learn to dance, take up gourmet cooking, learn a new language — or whatever you want to do. And when you move your body, pick things that are enjoyable like juggling or adult gymnastics, or move mindfully to get into the flow. If you think exercise is boring or a chore, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t make it about punishing yourself or looking good. Whatever you choose to do, have fun with it.
Here’s some movement inspiration for you:
See? It can be fun. 🙂
Matthews, C.E., George, S.M., Moore, S.C. et al. “Amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors and cause-specific mortality in U.S. adults.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2012; 95: 437–445.
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