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Is sitting the new smoking?

Woman standing

One of the many sit-to-stand workstation options.

Many news outlets and articles have recently declared sitting to be the new smoking. And while that certainly gets your attention, it is a bit inflammatory to equate sitting to the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States for more than 20 years.

It’s widely known that physical activity and nutrition are two important components of a healthy lifestyle. So what’s the big deal about sitting? Ultimately research says that the more you sit, the more you shorten your lifespan and the more likely you are to experience decreased quality of life. So let’s explore the facts, risks, and what you can do to move more.

We’re sitting more.
The average American sits for eight to 10 hours a day and for a variety of reasons. The largest changes to American lifestyles in the past century are that the majority of jobs now revolve around computers and fewer professions require physical activity. Technological advances have also led to stationary hobbies such as gaming and browsing the Internet. In addition, Americans are spending more time commuting, which usually means sitting. According to Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the treadmill desk, sitting all day is not natural for humans. “We have created for ourselves a modern way of living that clashes with the way we’re meant to be,” he said.

Is sitting a health threat?
So we’re sitting more, but what does that mean for our health? Research has linked sedentary lifestyles to increased risk of

Lack of activity also interferes with LPL, or lipoprotein lipase, which is an enzyme that breaks down fat and uses it as energy. When this enzyme isn’t working as it should, additional fat can be stored. In addition, less movement throughout the day and a work space that isn’t properly set up can lead to aches and pains. According to the 2013 Faculty/ Staff Health Status Survey, 36 percent of Illinois State University employees reported experiencing back pain some or most of the time.

But wait, I stand for my job!
Standing for long periods of time isn’t necessarily the answer either. What the body craves and needs  for optimal health is variety and movement. Flexibility and variety of postures allows the number of muscles you use to increase, which distributes the load more equally onto different parts of the body. This means there is less strain on individual joints and muscles. Changing positions also improves blood flow to working muscles and allows fluid to remain in your spine. Perhaps most importantly, movement and variety lead to less fatigue and let your brain reset, allowing for increased concentration and productivity.

Research in this area is still emerging. One recent experiment with high school students found that not only did students with a sit/stand option burn more calories daily, they also had increased focus and better participation.

But wait, I exercise!
Up until recently, if you met the weekly exercise guidelines prescribed by the Department of Health and Human Services  and supported by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association, you were considered physically active—case closed. Unfortunately, research has found that those with regular exercise routines still spend the majority of their day sedentary. In a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers reported that no matter how active they were, people still spent more than nine hours a day sitting. Another study from right here at Illinois State University that was presented at the 2013 American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting found that regular exercisers may make less of an effort to move outside of designated workout time. Researchers found that people are 30 percent less active overall on days that they exercise versus days they don’t.

What can I do?
Regardless of whether you sit, stand, and/or exercise, the goal is movement and variety throughout the entire day. Dr. Levine predicts that a revolution is coming, where all offices  and work spaces will be configured to invite movement and make activity a part of the daily work flow. Until then, here are some simple things you can do to work more movement into your day:

  • Schedule a walking meeting. If your agenda doesn’t require technology, conduct your meeting on the move.
  • Find tasks that you can do in a posture different than your usual position. If you are a sitter, identify tasks you can do standing such as reading or talking on the phone. If you are a stander, make sure you wear supportive shoes, stand on an anti-fatigue, and change your position whenever possible. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has additional tips for ways standing workers can find posture variety.
  • Use tools to help remind you to move. From apps and gadgets that provide prompts to setting reminders in your calendar, find a way that works for you. Before you know it, moving will become second nature.
  • Make sure to move often, especially outside of a regular exercise routine. Both are equally important, but the movement box is never checked off your to do list. Activity needs to be constant throughout the day.
  • Train yourself to move more. Use bathrooms, printers, and water fountains on a different floor or building. Use a smaller water bottle so that you have to get up more frequently to refill it. Park farther away from your destination. If you have a resource or reference that you use often, store on the other side of your office to force you to get up and move. There are many small things you can do to make yourself be active.
  • Schedule an ergonomic evaluation to make sure that your work space is set up to maximize your productivity and minimize discomfort. Ergonomic evaluations are free for employees. Often, small changes to existing office spaces can produce big results.

So, is sitting the new smoking? Not exactly, but it is vital to your health to move more throughout the day. In January we’ll explore the different active workstations used on campus such as the one pictured above.

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