Warning: I’m going to use the word “die” a lot for the next few paragraphs, but I promise that things will start to look up after that.
Being sedentary for long periods of time can erode your health in serious ways and even lead to early death, according to a study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study also found even those who meet recommended levels of daily exercise are still at increased risk.
Sitting at a desk all day — as many jobs demand — increases the risk of cancer (between 13 and 16 percent increased risk), cardiovascular disease (approximately 18 percent), Type 2 diabetes (90 percent) and early death. The study was based off of analyses of aggregated data from prior research.
According to the study, those who engage in regular physical activity, but still spend the majority of their day sitting are, on average, 30 percent less likely to die of these causes than those who get little or no exercise at all. However, even those who log in one daily vigorous exercise session after being sedentary for the larger part of the day were estimated to be 16 percent more likely to die than those who do not spend most of their day sitting.
The amount of time spent sitting down on a daily basis was determined to increase these health risks independently of other common causes of poor health, such as smoking, age and obesity, according to the study. However, the study doesn’t define exactly how much time spent sitting leads to these effects.
These are some pretty serious and frightening findings, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to combat these risks (and no, I’m not suggesting quitting your job). According to a different study led by James Levine, MD, PhD, an endocrinologist at Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic, even small amounts of moving around throughout the day can help thwart these negative health effects and prevent weight gain.
“Step one is get up. Step two is learn to get up more often. Step three is, once you’re up, move,” Dr. Levine told Smithsonian magazine. “And what we’ve discovered is that once you’re up, you do tend to move.”
Check out the following three tips for breaking up long periods of sitting with short episodes of exercise.
- Invest in a rising/standing desk. Some companies offer desks that can be height adjusted to be compatible for sitting or standing. If they don’t, you can invest in your own (this is your health we’re talking about!) or even build your own by raising your computer monitor and keyboard with boxes. The Smithsonian cites several different studies that found the standing up instead of sitting helps reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic problems, cardiovascular disease, cancer and lowers the long-term risk of death. Pro tip: If you go for the standing desk, wear comfortable shoes or keep a pair in the office.
- Use alarms to remind you to stand up. If a standing desk is not a plausible option, set alarms on your wristwatch, phone or fitness bracelet to remind you to stand up at least once an hour. This may seem frequent, but standing up, stretching and taking a lap around the office will likely help keep your mind fresh, regain focus and ultimately be more productive. Frequent breaks are a good thing for your mind in addition to physical health.
- Look for opportunities to exercise and take them. The truth is, everyone doesn’t always have time to log in a serious workout every day. Although it’s a good thing to make this a goal, not being able to hit the gym or make that yoga class doesn’t let you off the hook.
There are plenty of ways to get your heart rate up during the workday. For example, if it’s possible, try walking or riding a bicycle to work instead of driving or taking public transportation. A few days a week, take a shorter lunch break or eat while working on a simple task and use your lunch hour to go for a walk outside. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, or some combination of both. Make it a rule to stand up during conference calls, and suggest holding standing meetings. Walk into a colleague’s office to talk instead of communicating via email. If you stop and think about all of the things you do at work, many of them can probably be done standing up or even walking — it’s up to you to make the choice.