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
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 Wilmington.
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 factor."
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
"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
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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