There is much peril in staying put.
Here is a definition for “inertia,” according to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary:
A property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force.1
That damn inertia, it works both ways. If you’re moving, you’re more likely to stay moving. If you’re sitting still, you are also at increased chance of growing roots and becoming one with the couch.
Have you heard about the recommending 10,000 steps per day? I just got a FitBit Flex and the default daily goal is 10,000 steps. That’s supposed to be the healthy number to shoot for so you don’t spontaneously combust, or something. It works out to around five miles, depending on stride length, of course.
And yes, you can get up and go for a five-mile run and hit that target inside of an hour and then feel justified in ignoring the FitBit (or similar device) for the rest of the day, but if you spend the rest of the day on your ass it still isn’t good for you.
Even for the regular exerciser, sitting is bad. And we fit people have a tendency to rest on our laurels. We figure, Well, damn, I went for a long run. I deserve to watch five hours of TV now. With chicken wings. Unfortunately, the good of the run doesn’t undo the bad of the sitting.
And if you don’t otherwise exercise, the more time spent sitting, the less likely you will hit your 10,000 steps per day. The more time spent sitting, the less likely you will be to eat properly. The more time spent sitting, the poorer you will sleep. The more time spent sitting, the more puppies and kittens are struck by lightning …
I want to inspire you to move, and as a precursor to that it’s important for you to have a really good reason to. It’s not just about weight loss, but your health and the way you feel. So I shall apologize for what I’m about to do. I need to use a bit of fear to get the ball in motion. And yes, you’re the ball.
There are many good reasons to fear sitting. It has become the cigarette smoking of this generation, without the bad smells. Perhaps it is hyperbolic, but many are stating that too much sitting can be just as harmful as tobacco, with the exception that smokers often weigh less. Sitters have a tendency to weigh more.
The Many Causes of Increased Sitting
The passing decades have seen an increase in desk jobs, and a 2011 review of eleven studies featured in the journal Work determined that white collar workers are a significantly increased risk of sedentary behavior. And this sedentary behavior creates the aforementioned inertia, where people are more like to stay in a state of non-movement.2
In other words, because people sit all day at work, they’re going to be sitting at home as well. Sitting begets more sitting, just as movement begets more movement. That’s that damn inertia again.
The prevalence of sitting is on the rise in western society, and this is creating numerous healthy problems. A 1999 study of 919 adults in Switzerland and published in the American Journal of Public Health found high rates of sedentary behavior in 80% of men and 87% of women.3
But it’s not just working adults who are sitting. Children are getting glued to screens and equally at risk of high levels of sedentary behavior. A 2009 study of 561 boys published in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity determined that television and video games were prime culprits in an increase in sitting behavior.4 Another 2009 study of almost a thousand boys and girls, published in Preventative Medicine, came to the same conclusion, but adding that homework time was an additional contributor to seated behavior.5 Interestingly, both studies also pegged “motorized transport” as another major contributor to time spent sitting. Time spent in a car, taxi or bus is a major issue for adults as well.
Even One Day of Sitting is Bad
A 2011 study published in Metabolism resulted in some shocking finding about the short-term effects of sitting.
They took 14 men and women. These people were young, of normal body weights, and most importantly, they were fit. But when they were made to be completely inactive for a 24-hour period, the results were not good.
Insulin action is something you want your body to be good at. High insulin action clears glucose from the blood stream, and this is beneficial for many reasons. Unfortunately, just one day of being completely sedentary reduced insulin action by a whopping 39%. As a reminder, these people were young, fit, and not obese.6
At that’s why you should move every day, throughout the day.
Sitting Increases Risk of Death
I understand why some proclaim sitting as this generation’s smoking. It is shockingly bad to not move during the day, and the research proves the numerous ill health effects associated with too much sitting.
A 2007 report in Diabetes targeted sitting as a primary cause of metabolic syndrome (which is bad), type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.7 And in 2009 the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that too much sitting is a major predictor of chronic disease.8 In fact, there is an overwhelming body of evidence, of which I reference but a small portion in the next footnote, that all point to excessive sitting cause metabolic, hormonal, and cardiovascular problems that all lead to an increased risk of disability and early death.9
Considering that most of the modern world is spending too much time on their collective asses, then such news may be depressing. Actually, it’s not just this bad news that can cause you to feel depressed, because …
Sitting Can Cause Depression
The more you sit, the sadder you get. Your brain needs blood flow, and if it’s not getting it through movement, then it won’t be functioning at optimal levels.
A massive study of 8,950 women published a 2013 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine showed showing evidence that sitting increases the likelihood of depression by a significant degree. Women who sat more than seven hours per day were three times as likely to be depressed as those who say less than four hours per day.10
It’s difficult to determine which causes the other. Does depression cause people to sit, or does sitting cause depression? Anecdotally, I know on days that I sit on my ass I don’t feel so good about myself, whereas when I moved around a lot, there is a noticeable positive mental effect. Writing this paragraph made me get up and do some jumping jacks.
And it’s not just depression that you have to worry about, but burnout.
A 2007 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health found that the more sitting there was involved in a job, the higher the rate of stress induced burnout. What’s more, the study determined that it was women who were most susceptible.11
In my experience, most of my readers are interested in weight loss. Things like depression, mortality, heart disease, stress and burnout take second seat to just being able to lose weight.
I mention this now, because another bad thing about sitting is that …
Sitting Makes You Eat
Weight loss requires taking in fewer calories than you burn, known as creating a caloric deficit. Unfortunately, any time you create a caloric deficit, and yet are sedentary, hunger goes through the roof.
A 2012 study of 14 men and women published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism found that hunger hormones go nuts when people cut calories without regular activity. They feel hunger more deeply, and are less satisfied when they do eat. Conversely, people who do less sitting throughout the day are much less likely to feel hungry, and get more satisfaction from their meals.12
But it’s more than just about being hungry. Sitting causes us to eat even when we’re not hungry.
A 2011 report in Obesity Reviews found that a culture of sitting leads to “increased food intake in the absence of hunger,” and that we’re especially focused on eating foods with higher “hedonic value,” meaning that we choose what is commonly known as tasty “junk” food.13
Because sitting leads to more eating, it should be no surprise for you to learn that …
Sitting Causes Weight Gain
You can’t just diet the fat away. Movement is key.
The reality is that you’re going to want to do less sitting if weight loss is your goal, because a 2010 report of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed a clear gradient that directly correlated increased sitting time with increased body weight.14
And regular movement really will help you lose weight, because numerous studies show that the more you sit, the more you weigh, and the less you sit, the lighter you can expect to be.15
Unfortunately, there is even more bad news about sitting.
Sitting Causes Muscle Wasting
Every time an astronaut returns to Earth after an extended stay in space, they know what it feels like to be a jellyfish. Even with lots of time spent exercising on the International Space Station, all that time in a micro gravity environment causes a rapid acceleration of muscle loss that has multiple negative effects on the body. I interviewed Chris Hadfield, who was Commander of the International Space Station, and he said, “For most astronauts it takes about four months to feel completely normal again.” And these guys are working out hard for at least two hours a day, but the other 22 they’re in freefall, and it wrecks them.
Even being Earth-bound and feeling the forces of our gravity field, sitting nullifies a significant portion of planetary pull, and causes our muscles to deteriorate. That’s bad.
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Physiology found that being sedentary causes a significant suppression of lipoprotein lipase activity in skeletal muscle, which leads to muscle atrophy. Interestingly, they found that just slow walking could overcome the muscle wasting effects of being sedentary.16 This study backs up what was seen in 1985 in the Journal of Applied Physiology, which saw lipoprotein lipase suppression leading to muscle loss, that could be compensated for through the simple, regular movement. 17
It really doesn’t take much. Something like a FitBit can be a powerful reminder to do just a little extra movement here and there. Yes, even for a workout warrior like myself.
And I’m motivated to preserve my hard-earned muscle. When taken to an extreme, a number of bed rest studies have shown serious negative consequences in terms of losing muscle mass, as well as loss of bone mass.18 And it’s not just the loss of muscle, but the loss of performance. One 2007 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that bed rest lead to a significant decrease in the height of a vertical jump. The good news is that it is something that can be recovered. Taking steps to get back into action after bed rest showed a reversal of the negative effects on the body.19
So, what is the impact of this “muscle wasting?”
Well, it has numerous negative effects. One simple way to describe the visual result is that too much sitting makes you sag. Your abdominal, back and neck muscles all get soft and squishy, and your posture slopes forward, which is not a good look for anyone. Sitting doesn’t make things looks so good below the waist either. All that time spent on your ass doesn’t do those butt cheeks any favors, either in terms of the way they look or their ability to do their job.
Yes, you can lose weight by dieting alone. All you need to do is restrict calories. But what kind of body do you end up uncovering? The answer is: a saggy body.
Short, Intense Bouts of Exercise Won’t Help Much
The traditional model of going hard in the gym each day does not undo all the above-mentioned damage that accumulates from too much sitting. If you sit all day, it doesn’t matter if you exercise hard for an hour each day. The negative effects are just as bad.
It’s regular movement that undoes all the negative effects. A 2013 study published in PLoS One found that minimally intense activity, like standing or walking, for a longer duration had much more positive metabolic and cardiac benefits than prolonged sitting followed by shorter periods of moderate or intense activity.20 This is backed up by a 2010 report in Exercise and Sport Science Reviews, which found that all the damage of extensive sitting could not be undone with more intense yet short duration exercise, and that this had negative consequences for long-term survivability.21 In other words, even if you exercise a significant amount, if you also sit a lot, that exercise probably won’t help you live much longer.
The problem is that muscles need to contract regularly or they start to undergo negative metabolic changes. It doesn’t matter if you go hard for an hour each day if for the other 23 hours you’re not moving.22 There needs to be little bits regular movement every hour in order to stay healthy and lose weight. And it doesn’t need to be that intense either.
Time to Get Positive Again
I like to be positive and uplifting, and this piece wasn’t very good for that. In fact, there was a lot of negativity.
But it was necessary.
I needed to put the fear of sitting into you so you can see how it is one of the worst enemies of living in the modern world. I’m sorry it was necessary, but now you can look at your chair, car seat and couch and see something that needs to be minimized as much as possible. I want you to begin to look at them as things that are used for brief times, and then left alone for a while. If some type of tracking device helps you get up and move more, then use one. I know a lot of people who swear by them.
Sitting down is like swimming underwater. You can only hold your breath for so long before bad things start to happen. With sitting, it’s the same thing. Every time you sit, imagine that you’re holding your breath.
And imagine that getting up and moving around is coming up for a sweet breath of fresh air.
James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.
- Castillo-Retamal and E.A. Hinckson, E.A. (2011). “Measuring physical activity and sedentary behaviour at work: A review,” WORK, 40, no. 4 (2011): 345.357.
- S. Berstein et al., “Definition and prevalence of sedentarism in an urban population,” American Journal of Public Health, 89, no. 14 (June, 1999): 862-7.
- Gorely et al., “The prevalence of leisure time sedentary behaviour and physical activity in adolescent boys: an ecological momentary assessment approach,” International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 4, no. 4 (2009): 289-98.
- Biddle et al., “The prevalence of sedentary behavior and physical activity in leisure time: A study of Scottish adolescents using ecological momentary assessment,” Preventative Medicine, 48, no. 2 (February, 2009): 151-5.
- Stephens et al., “Effects of 1 day of inactivity on insulin action in healthy men and women: interaction with energy intake,” Metabolism, 60, no. 7 (July, 2011): 941-9.
- Hamilton et al., “Role of low energy expenditure and sitting in obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” Diabetes, 56, no. 11 (November, 2007): 2655-67.
- Owen et al., “Too much sitting: a novel and important predictor of chronic disease risk?” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43 (2009): 81-83.
- Warren et al., “Sedentary behaviors increase risk of cardiovascular disease mortality in men,” Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, 42, no. 5 (May, 2010): 879-85; D. Dunstan et al., “Prolonged sitting: is it a distinct coronary heart disease risk factor?” Current Opinion in Cardiology, 26, no. 5 (September, 2011): 412-9; N. Owen et al., “Too much sitting: a novel and important predictor of chronic disease risk?” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43 (2009): 81-83; A. Bergouignan et al., “Physical inactivity as the culprit of metabolic inflexibility: evidence from bed-rest studies,” Journal of Applied Physiology, 111, no. 4 (October, 1985): 1201-10; M. Hamilton et al., “Role of low energy expenditure and sitting in obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” Diabetes, 56, no. 11 (November, 2007): 2655-67.
- van Uffelen et al., “Sitting-time, physical activity, and depressive symptoms in mid-aged women,” American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 45, no. 3 (September, 2013): 276-81.
- Stenlund et al., “Patients with burnout in relation to gender and a general population,” Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 35, no. 5 (2007): 516-23.
- Granados, “Appetite regulation in response to sitting and energy imbalance,” Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, 37, no. 2 (April, 2012): 323-33.
- Chaput et al., “Modern sedentary activities promote overconsumption of food in our current obesogenic environment,” Obesity Reviews, 12, no. 5 (May, 2011): 12-20.
- Tudor-Locke et al., “Accelerometer profiles of physical activity and inactivity in normal weight, overweight, and obese U.S. men and women,” The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 3, no. 7 (August, 2010): 1-11.
- Lara et al., “Pausa para tu Salud: reduction of weight and waistlines by integrating exercise breaks into workplace organizational routine,” Preventing Chronic Disease, 5, no. 1 (January, 2008): epub; “Stand up, move more, more often: study finds more breaks from sitting are good for waistlines and hearts,” Press release from the European Society of Cardiology, January 11, 2012; G. Koepp et al., “Treadmill desks: A 1-year prospective trial,” Obesity, 21, no. 4 (April, 2013): 705-11; A. Prentice et al., “Energy expenditure in overweight and obese adults in affluent societies: an analysis of 319 doubly-labelled water measurements,” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 50, no. 2 (1996): 93-7; A. Regan and C. Heary, “Patterns of sedentary behaviours in Irish female adolescents,” Journal of Adolescence, 36, no. 2 (April, 2013): 269-78.
- Bey and M. Hamilton, “Suppression of skeletal muscle lipoprotein lipase activity during physical inactivity: a molecular reason to maintain daily low-intensity activity,” Journal of Physiology, 1, no. 551 (September, 2003): 673-82.
- Zderic and M. Hamilton, “Physical inactivity amplifies the sensitivity of skeletal muscle to the lipid-induced downregulation of lipoprotein lipase activity,” Journal of Applied Physiology, 100, no. 1 (January, 1985): 249-57.
- Berg, et al., “Hip, thigh and calf muscle atrophy and bone loss after 5-week bedrest inactivity,” European Journal of Applied Physiology, 99, no. 3 (February, 2007) 283-9; J. Rittweger et al., “Muscle atrophy and bone loss after 90 days’ bed rest and the effects of flywheel resistive exercise and pamidronate: results from the LTBR study,” Bone, 36, no. 6 (June, 2005): 1019-29; S. Bloomfield, “Changes in musculoskeletal structure and function with prolonged bed rest,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 29, no. 2 (February, 1997): 197-206.
- Rittweger et al., “Vertical jump performance after 90 days bed rest with and without flywheel resistive exercise, including a 180 days follow-up,” European Journal of Applied Physiology, 100, no. 4 (July, 2007).
- Duvivier et al., “Minimal intensity physical activity (standing and walking) of longer duration improves insulin action and plasma lipids more than shorter periods of moderate to vigorous exercise (cycling) in sedentary subjects when energy expenditure is comparable,” PLoS ONE, 8, no. 2 (February, 2013): Epub.
- Owen, “Too much sitting: the population health science of sedentary behavior,” Exercise and Sport Sciences Review, 38, no. 3 (July, 2010): 105-13.
- Emmanuel Stamatakis et al., “Screen-Based Entertainment Time, All-Cause Mortality, and Cardiovascular Events,” Journal of American College of Cardiology, 57, no. 3 (2011): 292-299.