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House Call: Why sitting is the new smoking

Many Americans these days have jobs that entail sitting most of the time. Our population has become increasingly overweight, and I see more and more patients with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, bad knees, sore feet, etc. The trend toward less movement and more weight has led doctors and scientists to quantitatively measure in what ways and how much all this sitting affects our health.

Since humans were active hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years before taking up agriculture, which was also a quite physical activity, it probably isn’t all that surprising that the research is showing that prolonged sitting is just bad for us.

Daily exercise for 30 to 60 minutes before or after work or on your lunch break helps counteract some effects of prolonged sitting, but many studies show that it just isn’t enough. That’s because it’s not just about the total number of hours you sit each day, it is also about the uninterrupted hours you sit each day.

We know that prolonged sitting has bad health consequences and we think that we know in part how it does that. Prolonged sitting stalls the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body and has been closely linked with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and premature death. Yikes.

Just by standing up, your body’s metabolism perks up and you burn 30 percent more calories than you do when sitting. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you can get up and out of your chair at work and off of your sofa while at home for 1 to 3 minutes every 30 minutes or so, it will add up over time and contribute to a healthier you. It’s even better if you can walk around a bit each time you get up.

Moving around so often at work can be a challenge depending on the nature of your job and the disposition of your employer. If you are prone to become engrossed in a task and lose track of time, I encourage you to set a timer on your watch, computer or phone to remind you to stand up. There are smartphone apps available to remind you so that you don’t have to repeatedly reset a timer.

If your employer asks about your new behavior, tell him or her about what you read in this article, or better yet, share a copy of it so he or she can benefit from standing up and moving around more often too. Some workplaces are investing in sit-to-stand desks so workers at the computer all day can stand some of the time. I see requests for this mostly from patients due to back pain. Maybe that aching back is saving your life by making you get up and move around.

When you are home watching TV, get up and move around during commercials or at the end of every episode if you happen to be binging on your favorite streaming series. Stand up while talking on the phone, sorting through the mail and paying bills.

As with most healthy habits, these changes will take a while to become part of your routine. Keep it up, use whatever kinds of reminders you find helpful, and before you know it moving around frequently will become second nature to you. Now that you’ve finished this article stand up and stretch. Maybe go get another cup of coffee. Keep moving.

Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.


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