ergonomics · fitness

New science on more bad things sitting does to you (or not)

CW: discussion of a study about a potential weight loss intervention, and the relationship between sitting and body weight.

It’s always open season on sitting. No matter what else is going on in the world, sitting is only going to make it worse. At least if you read the internet. Here’s one article’s list of terrible things that can result from sitting:

  • weakening and wasting away of the large leg and gluteal muscles;
  • increased risk of developing(?) or falling prey to(? unclear) metabolic syndrome;
  • your hips and back will not support you as well;
  • increased chances of developing some types of cancer;
  • higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease;

okay, enough super-scary and probably massively overdramatized items here. Feel free to take a seat now. Or better yet, curl up in this.

A woman lolling in a gray pillow chair, under a white fluffy blanket.

Feeling better? Good; you better enjoy it now, as science has a new study out to offer yet another reason why we shouldn’t be sitting. The tl:dr version is this:

When we sit, we unintentionally fool our bodies into thinking we are lighter, as chairs and sofas and large pillow chairs take some of the pressure off our bodies that gravity imposes (yes, I said gravity). When our bodies think we are lighter, then their homeostatic processes (that help regulate body weight) kick in and we end up gaining weight. If we sit less (or, as in this study, wear a super-heavy vest weighing 11% of our body weight and try to stand up wearing it for 3 weeks), we may lose some weight because gravity.

I don’t know about you, but this was a new one for me. I mean, I’ve heard of so-called weight-loss vests: you’re supposed to wear one and then sweat a lot and thereby lose weight. Which you don’t.

Headless woman wearing bright pink and black neoprene zip-up vest for sweating and therefore losing weight. Not.

In the course of googling “heavy vests”, I found that weighted vests are already a thing that some people use for cardio endurance training. (If any of you readers use weighted vests for training, I’d love to hear from you in the comments).

But some Swedish researchers had a different purpose in mind for weighted vests in their study. Their hypothesis, tested previously in rats, was that human bodies have what they call a “gravitostat” (think body-weight loading measure) that helps our metabolisms regulate our body weight over time. They wanted to see if increasing the body-weight load in humans with BMIs between 30 and 35 would result in weight loss or body fat loss. To increase the body-weight load, the scientists recruited subjects and put them in two groups: 1) the control group, who wore a 1-kg vest at least 8 hours a day for 3 weeks, and were told to try to stand some while wearing it: 2) the experimental group, who did the same, but while wearing vest weighing up to 11% of their body weight (up to 11kg/25 lbs).

What did they find? After three weeks, the heavy-vest group lost an average of 1.67kg (3.68lbs) vs. the control-vest group, whose average weight loss was .31kg (.68lbs). This was statistically significant, although not clinically so, as the experimental group weight loss average was 1.37% of body weight.

This is a very small study (72 participants), and the effect was really small. Also, the intervention was not one that we should pursue. Participants reported some adverse effects, like muscular pain and migraine headache. But, the researchers wanted proof of concept: they wanted some evidence that the gravitostat is a real thing and affects homeostatic processes related to body weight. They’ve gotten some– how much, I can’t say, as this is not my shop.

But what I can and am about to say is this: It’s a long long way from the very teeny-tiny results of this study (no offense, Swedish research people) to saying that sitting tricks our bodies into gaining weight. However, this New York Times article is all aboard the “get out of your chair” program:

… the broad implication is that we may need to stand and move in order for our gravitostat to function correctly, Dr. Jansson says. When you sit, “you confuse” the cellular sensors into thinking you are lighter than you are, he says.

The idea of an internal gravitostat is still speculative, though, he says. The researchers did not look at volunteers’ bone cells in this study. They also did not compare their diets and sitting time, although they hope to in future experiments. Plus, the study was short-term and has practical limitations. Weighted vests are cumbersome and unattractive, and some of the volunteers complained of back pain and other aches while wearing them.

But the researchers expect that wearing a weighted vest is not necessary to goose someone’s gravitostat into action, Dr. Jansson says. If they are right, getting out of your chair could be a first step toward helping your body recalibrate your waistline.

Okay New York Times. Okay, Swedish researchers– we get it. You want us to sit less and move around more. Well, we do too. Not for weight-related reasons. For body-feeling-good reasons. For taking-a-break-from-screens reasons. For dog-walking reasons. And many more that you can insert here. Furthermore, many folks have bodies that can’t move around in the ways prescribed by articles like this one. Attacking sitting is uncool for lots of reasons.

For those of us who are privileged to be able to choose a variety of types of movement, we still sit a lot because of the nature of work and the ubiquity of computer use. We should address those work-life-civilization issues in a broad way. But I don’t think any of those solutions will involve wearing a heavy vest. Unless that’s your thing. In which case, you go!

In lieu of the multitudes of sexy-weighted-vest-wearers, I picked this reasonable-looking vest-wearing Wikihow person. Go, Wikihow person!
In lieu of the multitudes of sexy-weighted-vest-wearers, I picked this reasonable-looking vest-wearing Wikihow person. Go, Wikihow person!

8 thoughts on “New science on more bad things sitting does to you (or not)

  1. Thanks for this you… re weighted vests, my trainer has one for increasing the intensity of body weight exercises like squats. It’s the same impact of holding a kettlebell or dumbbell but more evenly distributed. So not all uses are questionable;-).

    1. Thanks! I learned this (heretofore completely unknown to me) when googling around for the post. Makes total sense. In fact, Im guessing that the very small weight loss and body fat loss was probably due to unintentional endurance training for the experimental group. Your trainer wisely doesn’t use it for 8 hours a day for three weeks straight– controlled and knowledgeable use for training goals is a different kettle of fish.

      1. My non-Alex trainer (as well as Alex the Trainer) uses a weighted vest for some endurance stuff, and I quite like it – like Cate said, you’re carrying weight but you don’t have to manage the cumbersomeness of the kettle bell or slippery old metal dumbbells or whatevs. I like sand bags for the same reason – principally for glutei bridge stuff. NB: the vest I use at Paul’s is 40lb – VERY heavy, but meant for use for, like, max 5 minutes at a time if that.

  2. I’ve been thinking about sitting v. standing a lot since the work-from-home times began. Teaching is usually a very active job, but it became much more sedentary when we moved online. I have found that standing at the counter with my laptop benefits me in enumerable ways–less back pain, less pent-up energy (since I’m used to being a wiggly person with a wiggly job), and less boredom. Makes me wish I had more standing desks available to my kids in the classroom!

      1. Nicole– was it a designed standing desk? I have rigged up standing-desk configurations, but never bought a dedicated one. I’ve used the rigged-up version some, but not consistently. That’s a good blog post, too, especially as we move into the middle of this shifted work-from-home time.

      2. I’ve had two different “designed standing desks”. The one at my current job/office where I don’t sit anymore, is the best. The whole desk moves up and down from sitting to standing. So did the one at my previous job, but it was more of an add on. When I first starting using a proper stand up desk at work, I was told by the “expert” that it’s best to alternate sitting and standing for 30 min to an hour at a time. Standing all day isn’t good either. Too much of one position is not good, causes other problems, ankles, etc. Would be a good blog topic. I like standing alternately while working, but I do feel as though I can concentrate better when I am sitting, which makes no rational sense.

    1. Yes indeedy! I noticed this right away myself when I had to switch to teaching online. For fall, I’m setting up my study so I can stand, and hopefully move a little more during classes. And, I’m limiting their duration to 50 minutes or so at a time. I’m with you on the wiggling, and we need more wiggling in our lives! What a great idea– standing desks for kids. Good blog post idea, too… 🙂

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