Can you undo the health effects of years spent sitting?

Outside Online lists “Sitting is killing us” as one of the top fitness stories of 2014.

“In perhaps one of the most talked-about studies from this journal, scientists linked time spent sitting to mortality and found that the longer people sit every day, the higher their mortality rate. The revelation brought on a wave of stand-up desk articles and an urge to at least get up every 15 minutes to take a lap around the office.”

And maybe we’re all sick of hearing it but the bad news about sitting seems to be getting worse. Although the slogan “sitting is the new smoking” is new and the “sitting kills” headlines are new, the research about the health effects of sitting at work is quite old.

See Sitting shortens your life.

In fact, occupational sitting time is where the epidemiology of physical activity first began, writes one researcher in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Jeremy Morris found in the 1950s that London’s double-decker bus drivers were more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than the bus conductors, and that government clerks were more likely to die than mail carriers. In both cases, the more sedentary job carried greater health risks than the more active job, even though they were in a similar line of work.
In the decades that followed, researchers and policy makers focused on the health benefits of getting exercise. But according to the latest research, even when people do significant and regular exercise, they still increase their risks of serious illness from hours of physical inactivity.
These findings are also consistent with lifestyles in so-called “Blue Zones,” places such as Okinawa, Japan, and Sardinia, Italy, where people live much longer on average than the rest of the developed world. In addition to plant-based diets and strong communities, near-constant moderate physical activity is the norm in these areas.

And the news about sitting just keeps pouring in. First, we read about a connection between sitting and diabetes and other metabolic disorders, now research connects sitting to various forms of cancer. This isn’t all cause morality we’re talking about. After all, something has to kill you. There are reasons to be skeptical of all cause morality statistics.

Dr Skeptic on All Cause Mortality

Which is more important: how you die, or if you die? Research in medicine often uses mortality (death) as an important outcome. Death (from any cause, so called ‘all-cause’ mortality) is easy to measure, it is not subject to misclassification, and it is the most important outcome for many conditions and treatments. Many researchers, however, favour ‘disease-specific’ mortality (only counting the deaths from the disease being studied) rather than all-cause mortality. The argument is that this measurement is more sensitive to changes in treatments that specifically target that condition (as there is less ‘noise’ from deaths from other causes). For example, it makes sense to measure deaths from heart disease if you are testing the effect of a treatment for heart disease. However, the use of disease-specific mortality can be misleading, it is arguably less important, and it results in an overestimation of the benefits and underestimation of the harms from many interventions.

But sitting isn’t just about all cause mortality. It’s been linked to two very specific things, metabolic disorders and diabetes, not so much a surprise, and more surprising, to me at least, some specific forms of cancer. See More time spent sitting down linked to heightened cancer risk.

Risk increased more with TV-viewing time than work-related or total sitting time. “TV viewing is often accompanied by unhealthy food consumption and smoking, which pose risks of cancer,” Schmid said.

Colon- and endometrial-cancer risk seemed to be most strongly related to sedentary time, but overall sitting time was related to lung-cancer risk as well.

Sitting time was not related to other cancers, including breast, rectal, ovarian, prostate, esophageal and testicular cancers.

Too much sitting may lead to health problems through several mechanisms, Schmid said. Obesity may partly explain the connection, but there might also be disease-specific reasons that sitting would be linked to cancer, she said.

Three more nails in sitting’s coffin hit the press recently

1. Binge TV watching also turns out to be very very bad. Why? Because of sitting. See Is Binge Watching TV Killing You? New Study Suggests Risks.

“According to a new study, all your hours in front of the TV watching several episodes at a time may increase the risk of early death. New research published in the Journal of American Heart Association found that adults who watch TV for three or more hours a day may double their risk of early death compared to viewers who watch less TV.”

2. Sitting might even undo the good effects of exercise. See How Much Does Sitting Negate Your Workout Benefits? in Runners World.

“According to a research team from the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center, each time unit of sitting cancels out 8 percent of your gain from the same amount of running. In other words, if you run for an hour in the morning, and then sit for 10 hours during the day, you lose roughly 80 percent of the health benefit from your morning workout.

People who engage in an hour of moderate-intensity exercise–running is considered vigorous exercise–fare much worse. They lose 16 percent of their workout gain from each hour of sitting.”

3. You might think that young people do better on the not sitting front but you’d be wrong. Here’s a link to an article about young people and sitting, according to which young women sit or lie down for 19 hours a day. See http://www.thejournal.ie/university-of-limerick-sitting-down-heart-1465802-May2014/.

A 2011 study by the university found that teenager girls lie down or sit for up to 19 hours a day, including long bouts of inactivity during school time.

Researchers suggested that although they might be doing enough exercise, “if you sit for the rest of the day, it will still have health consequences”.

“There is no doubt that performing moderate or vigorous physical activity is good for the long term health of adolescents,” Professor Alan Donnelly from the Centre for Physical Activity and Health Research said.

However, we believe that long periods of sitting might be a separate risk factor in this group.


Tracy and I were chatting about sitting recently, of course while sitting, at an airport  drinking tea and coffee, waiting for our flight to board. Soon we’d be moving locations and sitting on a plane for seven hours. We’d just been sitting for days on end at a conference. Tracy was then off on a long car trip as part of a holiday. Two more days of sitting.

Tracy asked a question which I hadn’t heard addressed before, can you undo the ill health effects of sitting? Or if you’ve already been sitting your while academic career are you basically doomed? She didn’t put it that way but I thought about my own history and read between the lines. I will say that as the parent of three very wild and active children, especially in the early years, that I’ve spent a lot less time sitting than your average academic. But still…

I googled Tracy’s question and couldn’t find an answer. Anyone got any decent studies to refer us to on undoing the ill effects of sitting?

I’ll end on a happier note with some suggestions about avoiding sitting:

First, I love my standing desk–Celebrating my standing desks–and Emma loves her treadmill desk–she calls it “a miracle.”

Second, there’s also the less drastic, “getting up and stretching every 20 minutes” method. researchers say that undoes lots of the ill effects of sitting. It’s not just total time that matters. It seems to matter most how long at a time you sit without a break. I sat next to a medical researcher on a plane recently who set a timer. We took turns walking and stretching in the aisle every half hour. I also do this at conferences. (See Academic conferences as sitting marathons.)

Third, my partner’s workplace, though not mine, has taken to having standing meetings. Apparently they are shorter and more productive. No settling in for the duration. A few philosophy departments I know have breaks in their meetings.

Fourth, you can also exercise at work. Here’s some exercises to try. “The Twinkle Toe Tap into your inner Fred Astaire by speedily tapping those toes on the floor under your desk. Or graduate to a harder (and less conspicuous) move: Stand in front of a small trashcan and lift up those legs to tap the toes on its edge, alternating feet, in soccer-drill fashion.”

Fifth, I don’t watch a lot of TV. There’s a show on Netflix I’m currently watching, The 100, but I try to get up and stretch, foam roll, or do my physio exercises while indulging. “Set 97 years after a nuclear war has destroyed civilization, when a spaceship housing humanity’s lone survivors sends 100 juvenile delinquents back to Earth…” Teenagers? They sent teenagers?



9 thoughts on “Can you undo the health effects of years spent sitting?

  1. This has inspired me to set a timer on my phone to remind me to get up and walk around once an hour. It’ll do me good anyway, as I am prone to headaches when I look a computer monitor for too long.

  2. In answer to Tracy’s question, that article that was quoted in Runner’s World offered a hint. It did say that decreasing the amount of sedentary time improved the degree of cardiorespiratory fitness. I believe that they did state as little as 40 min of additional activity per day made a difference. That’s 5 min per hour in an 8-hour day. So I think that the effects of sitting all day are reversible, at least for your level of cardiorespiratory fitness.

    1. That’s interesting because I thought the research said that there is no amount of activity that can make up for it, that is, if I sit for 8 hours a day, I can’t reverse the health impact by being active and on my feet for an hour each day. So that would seem to suggest similar about larger chunks of time.

      1. But you can break it up, that is break up sitting, with small amounts of activity.

      2. That’s not what I understood from the conclusions of the paper. The original paper did say that reducing one’s sedentary activity is better than staying sedentary, and that the effects of increasing one’s activity even by a little bit were measurable. I highly doubt that the effects of sitting all day are permanent, and it makes sense to me that even a little bit of physical activity would have beneficial effects on cardiorespiratory fitness.

  3. This is a very thought provoking post. As a police dispatcher I sit for my 8 hour shift. Sometimes we are way to busy to even contemplate being able to get up to break the monotony of sitting. However, for those down times I need to get up and walk around. Thanks for this post 🙂

  4. Your advice to me on twitter helped me giving my standing desk another try and I haven’t looked back! I couldn’t afford a mat, but I had a couple yoga mats and I just fold one of them up. Does the trick, especially being barefoot!

    Now I can stand for at least half of my working day–it’s fantastic and I almost never have back pain anymore.

    I still can’t write manuscripts or things like that while standing though. One day, maybe!

  5. I tell my clients to forgo emailing or calling coworkers who are within walking distance. Just get up out of your seat and go ask them the question you have. It makes for better relationships because you get more face time with people and they never misinterpret something sent via email. And bonus, you’re not as likely to get a DVT from sitting all day long.

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