Do You Sit in a Chair at Work?
Do you lead an active lifestyle or a sedentary one?
The question is simple, but the answer may not be as obvious as you think.
Let's say, for example, you're a busy guy who works 60 hours a week at a
desk job but who still manages to find time for five 45-minute bouts of
exercise. Most experts would label you as active. But Marc Hamilton, Ph.D.,
has another name for you: couch potato.
Perhaps"exercising couch potato" would be more accurate, but Hamilton, a
physiologist, and professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center,
in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, would still classify you as sedentary. "People
tend to view physical activity on a single continuum," he says. "On the far
side, you have a person who exercises a lot; on the other, a person who
doesn't exercise a tall. However, they're not necessarily polar opposites."
Hamilton's take, which is supported by a growing body of research, is that
the amount of time you exercise and the amount of time you spend on your
butt are completely separate factors for heart-disease risk. New evidence
suggests, in fact, that the more hours a day you sit, the greater your
likelihood of dying an earlier death regardless of how much you exercise or
how lean you are. That's right: Even a sculpted six-pack can't protect you
from your chair.
But it's not just your heart that's at risk from too much sitting; your
hips, spine, and shoulders could also suffer. In fact, it's not a leap to
say that a chair-potato lifestyle can ruin you from head to toe.
Statistically speaking, we're working out as much as we were 30 years ago.
It's just that we're leading more sedentary lives overall. A 2006
University of Minnesota study found that from1980 to 2000, the percentage
of people who reported exercising regularly remained the same but the
amount of time people spent sitting rose by 8percent.
Now consider how much we sit today compared with, say, 160 years ago. In a
clever study, Dutch researchers created a sort of historical theme park and
recruited actors to play 1850s Australian settlers for a week. The men did
everything from chop wood to forage for food, and the scientists compared
their activity levels with those of modern office workers. The result: The
actors did the equivalent of walking 3 to 8 miles more a day than the
desk-bound men. That kind of activity is perhaps even more needed in
today's fast-food nation than it was in the 1800s, but not just because it
boosts calorie burn.
A 2010 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that when healthy
men limited their number of footsteps by 85 percent for 2 weeks, they
experienced a 17 percent decrease in insulin sensitivity, raising their
diabetes risk. "We've done a lot to keep people alive longer, but that
doesn't mean we're healthier," says Hamilton.
Today's death rate is about 43 percent lower than it was in 1960, but back
then, less than 1 percent of Americans had diabetes and only 13 percent
were obese. Compare that with now, when 6 percent are diagnosed with
diabetes and 35% are obese
Make no mistake: "Regularly exercising is not the same as being active,"
says Peter Katzmarzyk, Ph.D., Hamilton's colleague at Pennington, the
nation's leading obesity research center. Katzmarzyk is referring to the
difference between official exercise activity, such as running, biking, or
lifting weights, and so-called non-exercise activity, like walking to your
car, mowing the lawn, or simply standing. "A person may hit the gym every
day, but if he's sitting a good deal of the rest of the time, he's probably
not leading an overall active life," says Katzmarzyk.
You might dismiss this as scientific semantics, but energy expenditure
statistics support Katzmarzyk's notion. In a 2007 report, University of
Missouri scientists said that people with the highest levels of
non-exercise activity(but little to no actual "exercise") burned
significantly more calories a week than those who ran 35 miles a week but
accumulated only a moderate amount of non-exercise activity. "It can be as
simple as standing more," Katzmarzyk says.
For instance, a "standing" worker-say, a sales clerk at a Banana Republic
store-burns about 1,500 calories while on the job; a person behind a desk
might expend roughly 1,000 calories. That goes a long way in explaining why
people gain 16 pounds, on average, within 8 months of starting sedentary
office work, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at
But calories aren't the only problem. In 2009, Katzmarzyk studied the
lifestyle habits of more than 17,000 men and women and found that the
people who sat for almost the entire day were 54 percent more likely to end
up clutching their chests than those who sat for almost none of the time.
That's no surprise, of course, except that it didn't matter how much the
sitters weighed or how often they exercised. "The evidence that sitting is
associated with heart disease is very strong," says Katzmarzyk. "We see it
in people who smoke and people who don't. We see it in people who are
regular exercisers and those who aren't. Sitting is an independent risk
This isn't actually a new discovery. In a British study published in 1953,
scientists examined two groups of workers: bus drivers and trolley
conductors. At first glance, the two occupations appeared to be pretty
similar. But while the bus drivers were more likely to sit down for their
entire day, the trolley conductors were running up and down the stairs and
aisles of the double-decker trolleys. As it turned out, the bus drivers
were nearly twice as likely to die of heart disease as the conductors were.
A more recent interpretation of that study, published in 2004, found that
none of the participants ever exercised. But the two groups did sit for
different amounts of time. The analysis revealed that even after the
scientists accounted for differences in waist size an indicator of belly
fat-the bus drivers were still more likely to die before the conductors
did. So the bus drivers were at higher risk not simply because their
sedentary jobs made them resemble Ralph Kramden, but also because all that
sitting truly was making them unhealthy.
Hamilton came to call this area of science "inactivity physiology" while he
was conducting studies to determine how exercise affects an enzyme called
lipoprotein lipase (LPL). Found in humans as well as mice, LPL's main
responsibility is to break down fat in the bloodstream to use as energy. If
a mouse (or a man) doesn't have this enzyme, or if the enzyme doesn't work
in their leg muscles, the fat is stored instead of burned as fuel.
Hamilton discovered that when the rodents were forced to lie down for most
of their waking hours, LPL activity in their leg muscles plummeted. But
when they simply stood around most of the time, the gene was 10 times more
active. That's when he added an exercise session to the lab-rat routine and
found that exercise had no effect on LPL. He believes the finding also
applies to people.
"Humans sit too much, so you have to treat the problem specifically," says
Hamilton."The cure for too much sitting isn't more exercise. Exercise is
good, of course, but the average person could never do enough to counteract
the effect of hours and hours of chair time.
"We know there's a gene in the body that causes heart disease, but it
doesn't respond to exercise no matter how often or how hard you work out,"
he says. "And yet the activity of the gene becomes worse from sitting-or
rather, the complete and utter lack of contractile activity in your
muscles. So the more non-exercise activity you do, the more total time you
spend on your feet and out of your chair. That's the real cure."
"Your body adapts to what you do most often," says Bill Hartman, P.T.,
C.S.C.S., a Men's Health advisor and physical therapist in Indianapolis,
Indiana."So if you sit in a chair all day, you'll essentially become better
adapted to sitting in a chair." The trouble is, that it makes you less
adept at standing, walking, running, and jumping, all of which a truly
healthy human should be able to do with proficiency. "Older folks have a
harder time moving around than younger people do," says Hartman. "That's
not simply because of age; it's because what you do consistently from day
to day manifests itself over time, for both good and bad."
Do you sit all day at a desk? You're courting muscle stiffness, poor
balance and mobility, and lower back, neck, and hip pain. But to understand
why, you'll need a quick primer on the fascia, a tough connective tissue
that covers all your muscles. While fascia is pliable, it tends to "set" in
the position your muscles are in most often. So if you sit most of the
time, your fascia adapts to that specific position.
Now think about where your hips and thighs are in relation to your torso
while you're sitting. They're bent, which causes the muscles on the front
of your thighs, known as hip flexors, to contract slightly, or shorten. The
more you sit, the more the fascia will keep your hip flexors shortened. "If
you've ever seen a guy walk with a forward lean, it's often because of
shortened hip-flexors," says Hartman. "The muscles don't stretch as they
naturally should. As a result, he's not walking tall and straight because
his fascia has adapted more to sitting than standing."
This same effect can be seen in other areas of your body. For instance, if
you spend a lot of time with your shoulders and upper back slumped over a
keyboard, this eventually becomes your normal posture. "That's not just an
issue in terms of how you look; it frequently leads to chronic neck and
shoulder pain," says Hartman. Also, people who frequently cross their legs
a certain way can experience hip imbalances. "This makes your entire lower
body less stable, which decreases your agility and athletic performance and
increases your risk for injuries," Hartman says. Add all this up, and a
person who sits a lot is less efficient not only at exercising but also at
simply moving from, say, the couch to the refrigerator.
There's yet another problem with all that sitting. "If you spend too much
time in a chair, your glute muscles will actually 'forget' how to
fire,"says Hartman. This phenomenon is aptly nicknamed "gluteal amnesia."
Abasic-anatomy reminder: Your glutes, or butt muscles, are your body's
largest muscle group. So if they aren't functioning properly, you won't be
able to squat or deadlift as much weight, and you won't burn as much fat.
After all, muscles burn calories. And that makes your glutes a powerful
furnace for a fat-a furnace that's probably been switched off if you spend
most of the day on your duff.
It gets worse. Weak glutes, as well as tight hip flexors, cause your pelvis
to tilt forward. This puts stress on your lumbar spine, resulting in lower
back pain. It also pushes your belly out, which gives you a protruding gut
even if you don't have an ounce of fat. "The changes to your muscles and
posture from sitting are so small that you won't notice them at first. But
as you reach your 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond, they'll gradually become
worse," says Hartman, "and a lot harder to fix."
So what's a desk jockey to do? Hamilton's advice: Think in terms of two
spectrums of activity. One represents the activities you do that are
considered regular exercise. But another denotes the amount of time you
spend sitting versus the time you spend on your feet. "Then every day, make
the small choices that will help move you in the right direction on that
sitting-versus-standing spectrum," says Hamilton. "Stand while you're
talking on the phone. It all adds up, and it all matters."
Of course, there's a problem with all of this: It kills all our lame
excuses for not exercising (no time for the gym, fungus on the shower-room
floor, a rerun of The Office you haven't seen). Now we have to
redefine"workout" to include every waking moment of our days. But there's a
big payoff: more of those days to enjoy in the future. So get up off your
chair and start non-exercising.
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