Seven startling facts about the perils of sitting

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My article has nothing to do with firefighting, but I was sent this story written by Vicki Santillano, and I thought it had some interesting facts. Please read and try to take something away from this and incorporate some of these ideas into your daily routine.

Though I make it a point to exercise regularly and remain active throughout the week, the majority of my weekdays are spent sitting in a desk chair. Unless I’m walking to the bathroom or water cooler, the only body parts that I consistently move from nine to five are my fingers against the keyboard. This didn’t bother me as much a few weeks ago, when I thought that morning gym sessions and walking on lunch breaks balanced the sedentary nature of my job. But then I came across a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology linking excessive sitting time with increased risk of dying. The study also concluded that whether you exercise or not makes little difference. Uh-oh.

According to results, men and women who sat longer than six hours were more likely to die at the time of the study than those who sat for fewer than three hours. Six hours sounds like a long time to stay put, but considering a large portion of Americans have desk jobs and spend their off-time being couch potatoes, maybe that’s not so surprising. It made me wonder about our culture’s sedentary natur and how it affects us. After digging around, I came across some alarming facts.

We spend 8.5 hours a day in front of screens. That’s what Ball State University researchers found out in 2009 when they recorded how much visual media people are exposed to on a daily basis and through what mediums. Their results showed that across most age groups, consumers spend almost nine hours a day in front of the TV and computer, using mobile devices like the iPhone and watching movies. Another survey done that same year had similar results: The Nielsen Company’s Three Screen Report found that Americans watch about 153 hours of TV every month per person — and that doesn’t include anything watched online or via smartphones.

Work-life lasts 7.5 hours every day. Active life? Not so much. The Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted an American Time Use Survey in 2009 showing 7.5 hours as the average amount of time Americans spend working daily. Ted Schadler of Forrester Research estimates that 34 million Americans work from home at least part of the time, which often contributes to a sedentary lifestyle by eliminating the need to get up and leave the house, walk to a coworker’s desk for a meeting and so forth. (Plus, the kitchen’s right there.) That number is expected to reach 63 million by 2016.

Comparatively, the 2010 National Health Interview Survey found that only 31 percent of people do the recommended 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week. In fact, 40 percent of people don’t engage in any kind of regular exercise at all.

This all leads to 56 hours of sitting every week. A 2009 issue of Women’s Health reported on a poll conducted by the Institute for Medicine and Public Health that showed the average American spends a little over 33 percent of the week sitting. Given how much we work, watch TV and don’t exercise, that seems about right.

Three out of four Americans have an increased skin-cancer risk partly caused by sitting indoors so much. Recent research suggests office workers are more at risk for malignant melanoma than outside workers. In exploring this surprising rise, the authors of a 2009 study published in Medical Hypotheses discovered two significant factors: harmful UVA exposure from outside light through windows and a lack of vitamin D. The vitamin D problem is a persistent one in this country. A 2009 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 75 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, partly due to insufficient time outdoors (because we’re spending too much time working and watching TV indoors). We need vitamin D to fight melanoma, but the only way to get a sufficient amount is through proper diet and plenty of sunshine. A deficiency in vitamin D also contributes to osteoporosis and cardiovascular issues.

Constantly sitting makes our

bodies wider.?Not surprisingly, sedentary jobs and habits, as well as our culture’s penchant for greasy food and big portions, invariably lead to weight gain. Forty-four percent of workers in a 2010 survey reported that they had put on weight at their jobs. Forty-nine percent of them attributed it to “sitting at a desk most of the day.” That could be because being sedentary for long periods of time causes the metabolism to slow and less effectively break down fats and sugars.

Most things around us have gotten wider, too. As a result of the country’s collective weight gain, specialized office furniture is now made to support heavier loads. Theater seats increased from 19 to 21 inches in the last century. Doors and church pews have gotten a little wider, too.

Our mothers were wrong: fidgeting in seats is a good thing. The more you move in any capacity, be it pacing or wiggling in your seat, the less likely you are to gain weight, at least according to a 2005 study at the Mayo Clinic. Scientists studied the actions and tracked the caloric intake of obese and thin people for a period of time. They found that the thin participants sat 150 minutes less per day than the obese ones because they tended to fidget more, which meant that they burned an average 350 calories more. Even tapping your foot under the desk works; it’s a movement that continuously activates leg muscles without requiring much energy or thought.

There’s at least one alternative to sitting in a desk chair all day, and that’s the treadmill desk championed by the same Mayo Clinic researchers who studied fidgeting. You walk on the treadmill at any pace you like and type, talk on the phone, and conduct work as you would sitting — only this way you’re burning way more calories. But if your employers won’t spring for that, try to stand up and stretch or walk around at least once an hour. Just don’t stand hunched over your keyboard all day, as I’ve been doing since learning about the horrors of constant sitting. It barely makes a difference calorically, and then you have to explain to confused coworkers why you think your office chair is killing you.

Michael Heath is president of the St. John Professional Firefighters Association.