How To Counteract Sitting To Improve Your Health
Simply put: Counteract sitting by getting up and moving. Sitting for more than six hours a day is harmful to your health. Every hour get up and move with vigor, or exercise for more than 30 minutes a day. Here’s the science on why sitting degrades your health, and some specifics about what to do if you sit a lot.
A Google search for “counteract sitting” (without quotes) returns 7,290,000 results. Obviously, many people realize that sitting for prolonged periods of time is sufficiently detrimental to health that something needs to be done reduce its health impact.
In this post, you will discover:
- Why prolonged sitting harms your health,
- How short amounts of frequent or longer amounts of infrequent exercise counteracts sitting, and
- Some guidance on how to make your anti-sitting exercise plan happen.
Why Prolonged Sitting Is Harmful To Your Health
Prolonged sitting has been referred to the “new cancer” because it can be a gateway to chronic disease. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said because doctors believe “sitting is the new cancer”, he sets his Apple Smart Watch to give hourly reminders to get up an move, and is why Apple’s new headquarters offers standing desks.
“If I sit for too long, it will actually tap me on the wrist to remind me to get up and move, because a lot of doctors think sitting is the new cancer.”
Mr. Cook is not being hyperbolic in order to sell Apple’s Smart Watch. As I wrote in 6 Ways Sitting Will Kill You, Even If You Exercise, sitting can kill you in six specific ways:
- Lower extremity problems like poor circulation leading to deep vein thrombosis and osteoporosis.
- A whole assortment of chronic diseases, such as:
- 112% increase in the risk of diabetes,
- 47% increase in “cardiovascular events” (including heart attacks), and
- 90% increase in death due to those events.
- Deteriorating mental health.
- Chronic kidney disease, particularly for women, who when reducing their sitting time from a full eight to three hours reduced the risk by 30%. (For men it’s 15%.)
- An increased risk of metabolic syndrome by 73%.
- Muscle degeneration, including nice soft saggy glutes, and weak paunchy abs.
Since I wrote “6 Ways Sitting Will Kill You”, the Today TV show reported that people who experience such long bouts of uninterrupted sitting, and who stay sedentary for much of their waking time — 12.5 hours or more a day — have the highest risk of death from any cause, leading to the pronouncement that “sitting is the new smoking”.
So, I ask you to honestly assess how many hours a day you spend sitting?
If it’s less than 12.5 hours per day, you’re not out of the hot seat, but I’m unsure just when that seat gets hot; meaning, how many hours of sitting per day is not harmful to one’s health?
The Washington Post tells us that it’s well under 10 hours per day. It reported that the average office worker sits for about 10 hours each day as he or she slumps in front of the computer, plows through e-mails, makes phone calls, eats, watches TV and surfs the Web — all to the detriment of health.
Leonie Heron, a Ph.D. candidate at Queens University Belfast thinks that the maximum number of hours you can safely sit is below six hours a day. She analyzed the findings of six longitudinal studies, each identifying a link between sedentary activity and one of the following conditions: cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, all-cause mortality (even death has its costs), colon cancer, lung cancer, and endometrial (uterine) cancer.
As reported by Inverse, Ms. Heron estimates that in the UK sedentary behavior was the root cause behind:
- 16.9% of type two diabetes cases,
- 4.9% of cardiovascular disease cases,
- 7.5% of lung cancers,
- 9% of colon cancers,
- 8% of endometrial cancers, and
- 11.6% of deaths due to all-cause mortality.
Heron’s suggestion is to incorporate small amounts of exercise into the day, such as going for a walk at lunchtime or standing during a coffee break instead of sitting. The idea is just to push the needle from “no movement at all” to “even just a small amount of movement.”
How about 10 minutes of movement?
Some research has shown that walking, dancing, or gardening for as little as 10 minutes per day is associated with an 18 percent reduced risk of death. OK, but we’re talking death here — reducing by some uncomfortably small percentage the chance of not dying in return for a tiny amount of movement.
You can do better than that!
At the bare minimum, do as suggested by the Mayo Clinic:
- Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes
- Stand while talking on the phone or watching television
- If you work at a desk, try a standing desk — or improvise with a high table or counter
- Walk with your colleagues for meetings rather than sitting in a conference room
- Position your work surface above a treadmill — with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk — so that you can be in motion throughout the day
Gavin Bradley, director of Active Working, an international group aimed at reducing excessive sitting, confirms that these are meaningful changes that can improve your health. He uses a timer set every 20 minutes to remind him to stand up and straighten his posture. In the the Washington Post article, he says:
“It’s all about mixing it up. Metabolism slows down 90 percent after 30 minutes of sitting. The enzymes that move the bad fat from your arteries to your muscles, where it can get burned off, slow down. The muscles in your lower body are turned off. And after two hours, good cholesterol drops 20 percent. Just getting up for five minutes is going to get things going again. These things are so simple they’re almost stupid.”
The good news is that you can counteract sitting either by frequently disrupting your sitting by getting short bouts of exercise, or doing one longer exercise session every day.
Counteract Sitting Through Short or Long Bouts of Exercise
We’ve established that sitting can be deadly. That conclusion may not be surprising given that you’d expect people who stay rooted in a seat all day long are less likely to exercise, and are, therefore, less healthy than those who do.
But I’ll tell you something that did surprise me — sitting may be harmful even for people who do exercise!
I was in that group. In the past, my typical day found me sitting for hours at a stretch as I would do my “knowledge worker” work, or work on this website and articles. When I discovered that sitting for long periods of time is harmful, I set my phone’s timer to go chime every hour. Like a Pavlovian dog, I hear the chime, push myself away from the desk, and go do a vigorous bout of exercise for two minutes. I also do some stretches to counteract the sitting posture.
Turns out, this regime is an excellent way to counteract sitting’s nefarious health effects.
Tim Armstrong, a physical activity expert at the World Health Organization, said people who exercise every day — but still spend a lot of time sitting — might get more benefit if that exercise were spread across the day, rather than in a single bout, reports the Associated Press.
Perhaps his perspective has been shaped by a study published last year (2019) that tracked more than 17,000 Canadians for about a dozen years, and found that people who sat more had a higher death risk, independently of whether or not they exercised!
“We don’t have enough evidence yet to say how much sitting is bad,” said Peter Katzmarzyk of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, who led the Canadian study. “But it seems the more you can get up and interrupt this sedentary behavior, the better.”
Counteract Sitting with Small, Frequent Bouts of Exercise
One of my favorite health writers, Gretchen Reynolds penned a recent article about the “omics” of exercise. “Omics” is the study of all of the molecules in our blood or other tissues that are part of a particular biological process. For instance, genomics quantifies the molecules involved in genetic activities; proteomics does the same for proteins; microbiomics for the multiple contents of our microbiomes; and metabolomics for molecules related to metabolic processes.
Ms. Reynolds makes the following points about the health benefits of exercise:
- Exercising for even a few minutes can raise and lower the levels of hundreds of molecules in your bloodstream related to metabolic health.
- Countless studies show that people who are active are less likely than more-sedentary people to develop or die from a host of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, dementia, cancer, obesity and many others.
- Active people tend to live longer and feel happier.
- A number of important recent studies have delved into the ’omics of exercise, including an experiment showing that a short workout rapidly changes the levels of 9,815 molecules in people’s bloodstreams — even during short bouts of exercise.
So, if your butt is firmly planted in a seat for many hours a day, this is what you can do to counteract sitting:
- Set your phone’s timer to chime every hour.
- Get up and do something vigorous for two minutes, such as stair walking, jumping jacks, jumping rope, burpees and/or squats.
- Do a few stretches to counteract the head forward posture common among sitters.
- Return to your seat and reset the timer.
If you can’t get yourself to do that every hour when sitting, then you need to know how much exercise you need to do at one time to offset a day of sitting.
Counteract Sitting With 30+ Minutes of Daily Exercise
As mentioned above, much of the analysis suggests that getting off your duff frequently throughout the day to do short bursts of exercise is the best way to counteract sitting, but a new study says that between 30 and 40 minutes of daily exercise that builds up a sweat can counteract sitting’s ill effects.
If you can’t get out of your chair every hour to do short bouts of exercise, you can at least do it all in one session, and hopefully achieve the same goal to counteract sitting.
This recommendation is based on a meta-analysis across nine previous studies involving a total of 44,370 people in four different countries who were wearing some form of fitness tracker. The analysis found the risk of death among those with a more sedentary lifestyle went up as time spent engaging in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity went down.
This research is broadly in line with the new WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines, which recommend 150-300 mins of moderate intensity or 75-150 mins of vigorous intensity physical activity every week to counter sedentary behavior.
Pick one — either endeavor to do short bursts of exercise for every hour you’re sitting, or get it done in a 30 to 40 minute exercise plunge every day.
Some Exercise Guidance
I put some “how to” videos and links to some adept trainers that you can check out for some guidance on what exercises to do that cover:
- 2 minute exercise done every hour of sitting;
- 30 to 40 minutes of exercising per day; and
- Stretching that counteracts sitting posture.
Two-minute Exercise Bursts
(Tip: mute the music.)
30-40 Minutes of Daily Exercise
If you elect to exercise for 30+ minutes every day, I advise that you mix it up between cardio-dominate exercise and resistance training-dominate. For instance, three days a week you can do cardio, and three days resistance training.
If your cardio workout is leg-dominant (running, biking), you may elect to do less leg training in your resistance training days.
These are the YouTube channels I recommend that can help you develop an exercise regime:
- For mobility exercises: physical therapist Kelly Starret.
- For cardiovascular fitness, this one offers an at-home program that’s low impact on your joints.
- For resistance training I’m going to focus on exercises you can do at home, guided by Australian calisthenic expert Daniel Vadnal.
- If you have some dumbbells, I recommend you try Obi Vincent’s full body dumb bell workouts.
Postural Movements To Counteract Sitting
Two things causes our backs, shoulders, necks and heads to lean forward:
- Aging, and
The first is inevitable, and the second is ubiquitous, so both need to be addressed by doing movements to counteract the effects of aging and sitting.
The following video will help with your head and neck:
This movement will help with your head, neck, rounded shoulders — in fact, much of your posterior chain:
Your Takeaway for Counteracting Sitting
Remember these three things:
- Sitting six hours or more each day can slowly ruin your health.
- Exercising every hour that you sit for two minutes or more, or for 30 to 40 minutes each day can counteract the health-compromising effects of prolonged sitting.
- As long as you’re at it (exercising), spend a minute on your posture after your two-minute bout of exercise, or for a longer period of time after your longer daily exercise session.