Sitting too LongHemant Barot says by leaving his workstation from time to time, he actually becomes more productive.

A computer programmer who works in a downtown Sudbury office, he finds it beneficial to stand up, go for a stroll, to hit the reset button as it were.

“I try to avoid just sitting for a couple of hours constantly,” Barot said. “Sometimes when we’re busy, we forget, but I try to stand up at least every hour, go to the washroom, go to a drink of water, make a coffee, or just to move around. I’ll go into the next cubicle to talk to somebody for two to four minutes, a small chat.

“It refreshes your mind. Most of the time, when we’re working on a specific task and I finish it, before starting a new task I just take a small walk and it will give me a bit of refreshment before I start working on the new task.”

Mounting research indicates Barot’s brief breaks aren’t just good for his mental focus, but they’re doing wonders for his overall health, as well.

Lisa Lounsbury, a local corporate wellness coach and fitness trainer, says even those who exercise regularly and intensely are undermining the benefits they receive by sitting down for hours on end, and putting themselves at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, musculoskeletal issues and other serious health problems.

She’s gone so far in the past as to call sitting the new smoking, and stands by that assessment.

“It’s doing a lot of things,” Lounsbury said. “It’s slowing down our metabolism, because as we’re sitting, we’re not activating any muscles. Our body is very lethargic and just waiting for some kind of activation. You don’t have to use your stomach muscles, your back muscles, you’re just sitting there. That’s also causing a lot of stress on the heart, because of the restriction of blood flow to the heart and to the limbs, because of that 90-degree angle when you’re sitting.”

When Lounsbury hosts workshops, she does her best to keep things active and encourages people to stand often.

“Even after 20 minutes of sitting, the damage starts,” she said. “And you can’t reverse it. You can’t reverse a full day of sitting by going to the gym and working out two, three hours. You can’t get that time back. So what I’m encouraging people to do is keep moving all the time, all throughout the day.”

That seems as important in Greater Sudbury as anywhere, as the city was recently named the country’s second most obese among 33 Census Metropolitan Areas of similar size, based on information from Statistics Canada, behind only Saint John, N.B.

More people are employed in offices or sit behind desks, as automation and computerization mean even those in industrial jobs that traditionally required more activity need not move as much.

“It’s a hard habit to break, sitting,” Lounsbury said. “You sit in the car, you sit in meetings, you sit at your desk, you sit for lunch. There are always opportunities to sit, but we forget we have to stand. My assistant here, she has a standup desk. She created it with a five-dollar stool and puts her laptop on there, with a yoga mat to stand on, and stands most of her day. That standing encourages your body to move, because of the nature of your body. You sway from side to side, you start stretching – it’s amazing, what will happen.

“A body at rest stays at rest. A body in movement continues to move.”

Dr. Mark Tremblay is director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. Much of his research has focused on how sedentary lifestyles adversely affect our health – and his findings aren’t encouraging.

“The global problem is that we’ve just gotten out of balance with our movement variability,” Tremblay said. “It’s not that sitting is bad, it’s that too much sitting is bad, just like too much of anything is bad, and in our contemporary lifestyle, it has become bad among adults and among children, to the point that we’re seeing serious consequences of that.

“You can look at any statistic – chronic disease, obesity, fitness, it doesn’t matter. The trends are striking. The changes even across the last generation are enormous and detectable and measurable. Historically, we’ve always focused on the physical activity piece and said we need to be more active, which is true. It’s absolutely true, but activity for the most part, on a population level, is something we don’t do. Sitting is what we do do.”

Hence, the focus on sedentary behaviour, rather than just overall physical activity.

“Even if you and I increase our physical activity by 100%, it’s going to take up about 3% of the 24-hour period, so it’s still a very small slice of the pie,” Tremblay said. “Our sedentary behaviour, which is typical of Canadians, is 75% of our waking time. It’s a big chunk.”

But for those who stand up more over the course of their lives, risks of “all-cause mortality” are much lower, irrespective of how much they exercise.

“This whole field of sedentary physiology is just emerging and the evidence is quite compelling, in terms of the breadth of systems that it affects,” said Tremblay, who makes a habit of standing up to take phone calls in his office – one of many micro-interventions, as he calls them.

Such small changes in routine, if frequent enough, can make a big difference in overall health.

“It reduces cardiometabolic disease risk, it improves the skeleton, it’s associated with mental health benefits – all of the things associated with increasing physical activity, although you’re not increasing physical activity. The intervention is different, but it does make me unsedentary.

“You think about the tough-to-reach parts of the population: People that are obese, people that have chronic disease, people that are awkward, people that have anxiety disorders, whatever, you can intervene for eight seconds, two minutes, on a plane, at work, anywhere, there are these little games you can play with yourself to introduce a little inconvenience into your life, and your health will improve as a result of it.”

All that’s needed is a little creative thinking, Lounsbury added, to get folks out of their seats.

“People say, ‘I have to,’ but you don’t have to,” she said. “You can stand up to do different things, there’s lots of opportunity, but you just have to get out of the habit of sitting.

“When you’re invited into someone’s office, you say ‘Come in, sit down.’ Why can’t you say, ‘Come on in, let’s stand up and talk.’ Then your body starts to move.

“It’s a social thing, the way we’re encouraged to sit. Maybe standing infers that I don’t want to talk to you very long. But even in meetings, I’m always encouraging people to stand up. You can stand up and still function and contribute, and probably better, because your brain is more focused now. You’ve got blood going where it’s supposed to.”

A common rule of thumb is to stand every half hour, but Tremblay said there’s no evidence-based guideline, though research indicates more is better.

“Within feasible limits, I would say as often as possible,” he said. “Thirty minutes is often thrown out there and in terms of most sedentary jobs, is not that infeasible. Whether that getting up is to get a glass of water, go to the bathroom or even chase a dust bunny in your office, it only has to be for a few seconds, but you’ve interrupted the immobility of your muscles, that hibernation of your metabolic systems, and that’s where that benefit seems to come, just from that interruption.”

He doesn’t advocate non-stop standing, but more balance.

“If you stand all day, I can guarantee you your back’s going to be sore, your ankles will be sore. Your body’s a pretty good feedback loop, just like if you drive for too long, your bum is sore. When things like that happen, for heaven’s sake, change your posture. And better still, do it more frequently and more deliberately.

“It just makes sense. It’s how we evolved and it’s going to result in more muscle contractions, it’s going to result in more overload and whether it’s a sore bum or carpal tunnel syndrome, and the same goes for exercise. If you’re obsessive or over-training, you’re going to deteriorate, as well, so listen to your body and when it feels like it’s time to move, move, and if you’ve been sitting for long periods of time, cue yourself. Whether that’s in a car, or if it’s your child, in a high chair or car seat or a stroller, resist that and allow the joy of movement to express itself. Just imagine the dividends it will pay throughout life if we’re allowed to do that in schools, in homes, in workplaces. We’ll be a lot healthier planet as a result.”

About the Author Lisa Lounsbury