The amount of time a person sits during the day is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and death, regardless of regular exercise, according to a review study published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
“More than one half of an average person’s day is spent being sedentary — sitting, watching television, or working at a computer,” said Dr. David Alter, Senior Scientist, Toronto Rehab, University Health Network (UHN), and Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. “Our study finds that despite the health-enhancing benefits of physical activity, this alone may not be enough to reduce the risk for disease.”
The meta-analysis study reviewed studies focused on sedentary behaviour. The lead author is Avi Biswas, PhD candidate, Toronto Rehab, UHN and the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto, and the senior author is Dr. Alter, who is also Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto.
Set a timer: Tracy and I both write using the Pomodoro technique, short focused bursts with breaks. We use timers and that makes taking a break from sitting easy.
In the evening?: I’m good during the day–I work at a standing desk for at least half the time–but nights can be a challenge when I’m not out doing Aikido or riding my bike. Sometimes at night I just want to watch Netflix or sit in a comfy chair with a book. I foam roll in the evening, and there’s lots of household chores to keep me hopping. Weekends, I worry about movies. It doesn’t sound like much but 2 hours or more sitting really isn’t my thing. See Life as a shark!
This post isn’t addressed to the already-fit. It’s a message of hope for total couch potatoes who have perhaps despaired of ever talking themselves into an exercise routine.
Towards the end of 2012, when I turned 43, I read a couple of articles about the dangers of sitting for long periods of the day, especially for women. Totting up how many hours a day I’ve been sitting, ever since… well, all my life, really, as schoolgirl, student, and writer… I came up with the horrifying figure of fifteen hours sitting, eight hours lying down, at best an hour on my feet (if you include cooking). I realized that despite being seven years younger than my partner, I might well die first. I always tell my kids that I’ll do my best to live to be a hundred, but that was a big lie: I wasn’t doing anything of the sort.
Around the same time, a writer friend mentioned other writers she knew who had taken to walking on a treadmill while writing. I hooted with laughter.
Then a couple of weeks later, I purchased a Lifespan DT7 treadmill desk, sight unseen. I could have tried it out in a local showroom but decided not to, in case I wouldn’t like it at first; I was hoping the enormous price would compel me to commit myself to treadmilling.
Two days of slight dizziness; a week or two of aching thighs. One friend predicted that I would fall off, because I’m famously clumsy, but it hasn’t happened yet. I could tell from the start that this was going to work for me as nothing else has, because – engrossed in writing – I just don’t notice the hours going by. At long last, I’ve managed to trick myself into movement.
I started at two miles per hour (American machine, so imperial units) and now I’m up to 2.7. I don’t have a rule for how many hours a day I stay on, but I’d say it’s rarely below two, often about four, and one glorious day hit six. It really helps that I attach my laptop to a big monitor, so I’m typing at hip level but reading at face level.
The one mistake I made was not to realize that I would need to stretch sometimes. I thought of walking as such a basic human activity that it couldn’t hurt me… and then strained my back, four months in, after an afternoon of collating a manuscript. (The physio said it was a classic injury of someone who takes up exercise for the first time.) But once I was healed I got back on the treadmill and now, a year in, I can’t imagine working without it. Tiny static shocks when I touch my laptop are all I can complain of.
I’ve read that treadmilling diminishes concentration slightly, and I’d agree; sometimes if I’m about to draft a brand-new scene, I decide to save it for when I’m sitting down with my coffee. But on the other hand, the walking wards off afternoon sleepiness. I can write, do online research and email, talk on the phone if it’s with someone who doesn’t mind my sounding slightly breathless… When I’m doing something hands-free like watching video, I lift some light weights while walking. Handwriting or video editing would be difficult, but luckily I rarely need to do either. Reading books (rather than onscreen) I save for sitting-down time.
I weigh the same as a year ago (perhaps because all that exercise makes me want lunch at eleven), but I feel much livelier. I don’t think my writing’s got better but it’s no worse either. Basically, it’s a miracle.
Emma Donoghue is a writer of drama, literary history and fiction (Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, the international bestseller Room and – coming in April – Frog Music) who lives in London Ontario.
Sitting is the new smoking. I’m sure by now you’ve heard that. And as someone who reads and writes professionally, activities traditionally done while seated, this has me worried. One theme in two of the books about fitness I’ve read recently, Gretchen Reynolds’ The First Twenty Minutes and A.J. Jacob’s Drop Dead Healthy–is that sitting is killing us.
And even getting physical activity each day, it turns out, isn’t enough to offset the risk of sitting. I’ve read these studies about the dangers of inactivity before and thought I didn’t have to worry. After all, I’m one of the most active people I know. I bike to work, I play soccer, I do Aikido, etc etc. But no. It turns out that regular exercise can’t offset the metabolic death that kicks in from sitting, even just after 20 minutes of sitting. Reynolds now gets up from her desk every twenty minutes and runs around. Jacobs was so convinced of the evidence against sitting that he now writes at a treadmill desk–that’s how he wrote the fitness book–and he literally ‘runs’ his errands.
My preferred mode of being–in the past–was to physically exhaust myself through exercise and then with the body calm and the mind wide awake turn to my academic work. I felt good about the hours at the desk because it was usually preceded by one to two hours of intense exercise–hill repeats, intervals on the track, etc. I do my best writing that way: physically exhausted, mentally charged up and alert. I liked it because it allowed me to sit still. Otherwise, I fidget and get up and wander around. It turns out that all that fidgeting is a a good thing, fitness wise.
So what to do? Well, at home I’m experimenting with a standing desk. See photo below. It’s still very much a work in progress but I like it a lot. I waste less time at the computer. When I’m there, I work. I stand on a pad (like people who work at cash registers) and I have a yoga block to shift my posture around occasionally. My back also feels a lot better. I’ve had physio and posture analysis done after back pain and it turns out that for a professional sitter, my sitting sucks. The good news is that I have excellent standing, walking, running, biking posture. I think maybe I was meant to be something other than a professor of philosophy. The only challenge with my standing desk is after runs and bike rides when I find myself wanting to sit but then I take my lap top to the sofa for awhile and that works too. I’m not sure what to do at the university as I like to sit when I chat with students. I’m still trying to decide about that. In an ideal world I’d have an adjustable height desk but I suspect they are out of the university’s budget. I’ll report back.