The news headlines are clear: "Sitting All Day Is Killing You,"  "Couch Potatoes Double Risk for Heart Disease," "Move It to Live." Perhaps you can't blame the media for sensationalized stories when there's such solid evidence linking cardiovascular disease to a sedentary life spent sitting to work, sitting to travel, sitting to watch television, and, now, even sitting to interact with friends virtually.

What makes sitting so deadly isn't completely understood, but it's believed that prolonged sedentary periods lead to significant loss of the heart-healthy enzyme lipoprotein. Without sufficient lipoprotein, cholesterol and triglyceride levels rise unchecked and increase your risk of heart disease. Avoiding the perils of this so-called "sitting disease" can be a challenge in modern society, but you can make a change. First, though, you may need to rethink what it means to be physically active and admit just how sedentary you are.

Sedentary and Physical Activity Guidelines
Recommendations related to a sedentary life boil down to two bits of advice:

  • Move your body more
  • Any activity is better than no activity

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does offer advice on moderate and vigorous activity for people of different ages and circumstances. According to the guidelines, most adults should engage in moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking) for at least 2 hours and 30 minutes per week. The more active you are, the bigger the health benefit.

The problem with these recommendations is that they don't cover what you should be doing during non-exercise hours. Increasingly, though, researchers are finding that the benefits gained from regular exercise are canceled out if you spend the majority of your remaining time being sedentary. To measure the impact of a sedentary lifestyle, studies have looked at factors such as how much time people spend in front of a television, computer, or other screen. A January 2011 study, for instance, found that spending four or more recreational hours per day sitting in front of a screen increased the risk of cardiovascular disease by about 125 percent. This study, like similar ones, found that exercising regularly didn't seem to offer any protection against the increased risks for heart disease that occur with prolonged sitting.

Breaking Bad Habits
If your job requires you to sit for long stretches and if you tend to spend much of your downtime sitting and lounging, it's probably time to make a change. Cardiologists and other health professionals have begun advocating for changes in the workplace. Using adaptable standing/sitting desks, for instance, allows employees to spend more time on their feet, which helps lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

You can also adopt some simple rules to live by to lower your risk of heart-related problems:

1) If your job requires you to sit for extended periods, spend a good portion of your leisure time standing or moving. So instead of crashing after work on the sofa with a snack and the remote, watch your favorite show while walking the treadmill or doing some stretches.

2) Adopt routines that keep you moving, even if it's just a casual pace. Housework, gardening, taking the kids to the park, walking to the store: these activities may even be more beneficial than vigorous exercise if they keep you off the couch and out of your car. 

3) Increase your level of activity gradually. This is especially important if you suffer from existing health problems. Be careful not to overextend yourself. Instead, build up gradually to doing more and more activities.

4) When you are forced to sit for long periods of time, take regular breaks. An Australian study found simple minibreaks in which you stand up, wiggle, or march in place could help lower blood sugar, triglycerides, cholesterol, and waist size.

 

Sources:

Healy, G.N., et. al. "Breaks in sedentary time: beneficial associations with metabolic risk." Diabetes Care. 4: 661-666 (2008). February 5, 2008. Web. June 20, 2012.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18252901

"Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. n.d. Web. June 201, 2012.
http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/

"Physical Inactivity and Cardiovascular Disease." New York State Department of Health. n.d. Web. June 19, 2012.
http://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/chronic/cvd.htm

Stamatakis, Emmanuel PhD, MSc, BSc, et. al. "Screen-Based Entertainment Time, All-Cause Mortality, and Cardiovascular Events." Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 57:292-299 (2011). n.d. Web. June 20, 2012.
http://content.onlinejacc.org/cgi/content/full/57/3/292