“Sitting is the new smoking.”
You may have heard this phrase popping up of late within the public consciousness, a phrase coined by Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the first treadmill desk, but what does it insinuate? Over the last few decades we have had it drilled into our heads that smoking is bad for you, along with a laundry list of the inherent risks and adverse side-effects, but how or why is the act of sitting detrimental to your health?
As society moved from a more active, agricultural lifestyle to one of office jobs, automated transport, advanced technology and modern convenience, we’ve had a common priority in mind: our comfort. And that comfort equates to sitting for more than half the day, whether it be on the plush bucket seat of your car, the last spot on the subway, or your favorite comfy couch in your living room as you binge watch “Orange is the New Black”. But studies have shown that constant sedentary behavior can lead to poor health, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, colon, lung and endometrial cancer, disability, depression, obesity and hypertension. Doctors believed those problems were due to the fact that people who sat more were not working out very much, but while exercise is critical, the current thinking is that it is just as critical to be on your feet more and keep moving throughout the day.
New studies reveal that there is a big difference between exercising too little and sitting too much, due to the fact that our bodies consume energy in different ways whether it be sedentary, standing or exercising. The human body consumes energy in three different ways. There’s the thermic effect of food, which is the energy you burn while digesting food, processing nutrients, and generating heat to warm your body, your resting energy expenditure which refers to the amount of energy your body consumes at rest – where vital organs consume the majority of your daily calories even while sleeping – and your activity energy expenditure where exercise or daily activities consume a more variable amount of calories. That activity energy is further divided into what is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT, which is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating, or sports-like exercise. This could include walking to work, typing, performing yard work, or more trivial physical activities such as folding laundry or walking up a flight of stairs.
The human body is designed for movement, burning off the calories needed to ensure that every cell and bodily process runs efficiently. But even when we’re not exercising, we’re moving and using energy, which is why NEAT is so vital. A body that’s sitting is not expending energy, so the signals from your brain that result in you moving and burning calories become infrequent, which, in turn, the processes which build up fat increases. When that happens, the desire to get out of our chair wanes.
So, what are some changes you can make to reduce such sedentary behavior? You can start simple – take your phone calls while on your feet or pacing while you talk, keep a glass or bottle of water on your desk or table so you’re more inclined to get up to refill it, take walks around your office building or home often, especially after meals, skip the elevator and take the stairs, invest in or build your own standing work desk, wear a pedometer to track movement to achieve a baseline and aim to increase that baseline each day, create an action plan to incorporate different physical movements that fit seamlessly with your daily living.
Research has shown that incorporating just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day can significantly contribute to one’s longevity. An optimal approach would be to develop a well-rounded physical activity program which includes aerobic exercise (walking, running, cycling, swimming, stair climbing, etc.) and strength training exercise (using body weights, resistance bands, free weights, medicine balls or weight machines), but not necessarily during the same session. This approach will help maintain or improve cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, as well as overall health and function. Just be sure to seek medical evaluation and clearance before beginning any physical activity program.
Look outside you door, within your own HOA, and see what it may have to offer you in terms of leading a more physical lifestyle: walking trails, community 5 Ks, community fitness classes, recreation leagues, swimming or biking clubs, and the like, anything that you are likely to enjoy and stick to and incorporate into your schedule. The goal is to get moving, and stay moving!