Are you sitting too much?
Most of us could benefit from spending less time sitting down, and that applies even if you’re keeping active, as Sarah Brealey explains.
Most of us know that being active is good for our health. But more evidence is emerging that even if you exercise regularly, spending a lot of time sitting down can be bad for you. Professor Stuart Biddle, Professor of Physical Activity and Health, based until recently at the BHF National Centre in Loughborough, explains: “We sit too much, and research suggests that this is not very good for you. The poor health effects from too much sitting are separate from whether you are physically active or not. They are separate behaviours in the same way that smoking is different from diet.”
People who spend long periods of time sitting have been found to have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death from all causes. This was originally thought to be because those people were more likely to be obese. But there is now evidence that even if you’re not overweight, sedentary behaviour (see definition, below) can still put you at greater risk.
The poor health effects from too much sitting are separate from whether you are physically active or not
Sitting for long periods is also associated with poor mental health, such as depression (although it can be difficult to separate cause and effect), and that people feel their minds are working better when they sit less.
Sedentary behaviour is increasingly common in a society where many of us do desk jobs, travel in motor vehicles and spend leisure time in front of computers and televisions. It also increases with age, particularly when ill health is a factor. Research into current levels of sedentary behaviour is limited, but we know that adults of working age in England average about 9.5 hours per day of sedentary time. Between the ages of 65 and 74, sedentary time in both men and women increases to 10 hours per day or more. By age 75+, people are sedentary for 11 hours per day.
The term refers to a group of behaviours that occur when sitting or lying down while awake and that typically require low energy expenditure. Examples include sitting while at work, home or school; watching television; using a computer or playing video games (unless it is ‘active’ gaming, such as Wii Fit); reading; sitting while socialising with friends or family; and sitting in a car or bus.
Sleeping, pushing yourself in a wheelchair and doing chair-based exercises are not classed as sedentary.
Change of behaviour
This is still an emerging area of research, so we don’t know exactly how much sedentary behaviour is too much, but current Department of Health guidelines say we should reduce the time we spend sitting. “There are two issues,” says Professor Biddle. “One is how long you sit for throughout the day, and we want to reduce that time. The second is how often you break up that sitting, and that is quite important.
“We are not saying you mustn’t sit down – that would be nonsense. But when you are sitting down for long periods, try to break it up. A common sense rule of thumb is to get up for five minutes every half hour.”
Danny Simpson, 77, a retired jeweller and teacher from Reading, believes it’s vital to keep moving. Since his heart attack five years ago, Danny eats healthily and doesn’t sit down for long periods.
“My motto is ‘use it or lose it’,” he says. “To keep a reasonable quality of life, you have to keep your body moving. That means it’s very important not to spend too much time sitting around.”
Professor Biddle says that avoiding sedentary behaviour at home can be more of a challenge than it is at work. “Standing up during the ad breaks can help, or go for a walk. Do chores around the house. Break up television time with washing up.”
Danny agrees. “I do sit down and watch television, but I make sure I get up and look out of the window every 20-30 minutes. It’s too easy to just sit down and do nothing for the whole evening. I think it’s much better to do something, even a little bit of housework or a short walk.”
Many older people are in poor health, so may find it harder to move around, but Professor Biddle says they can benefit if they do. “If you have a chronic illness, you might not feel like getting up and doing things, but in many cases that is counterproductive. Sitting all day is likely to lead to worse health outcomes, and for many conditions, for example arthritis, moving can help with your condition.”
This echoes Danny’s experience: “I have arthritis, but it’s quite mild and I think that is because I keep moving.”
Working it out
It’s important to break sedentary behaviour in the workplace, too. Claire Higgins, 30, who lives near Glasgow, discovered the benefits when she took part in Santander’s 50 Million Steps Challenge, a pedometer challenge that raised over ￡75,000 for the BHF. The challenge was particularly close to Claire’s heart, as her daughter Sophie, seven, was born with congenital heart disease.
We are not saying you mustn’t sit down. But when you are sitting down for long periods, try to break it up
Claire has a desk-based job for Santander that she mostly does from home. She says taking part in the challenge made her, and her colleagues, realise how much time she spent sitting down.She says: “We all enjoyed the challenge, but it was an eye-opener in terms of the lack of activity we do during working hours. We now know that we need to make a conscious effort to get up and away from the desks every so often to walk for a few minutes.”
Professor Biddle agrees this is a sensible approach. In his office, people stand for at least the first 15 minutes of every meeting, although people often choose to stand for longer.
He also suggests that workers consider whether they have to sit at their desks. “You can buy standing desks, which are getting cheaper, but you can also do things like putting a laptop on a box on your desk, so it is at standing height. If you use an iPad, you could put it on a filing cabinet and stand up to use it.”
Claire says she tries to stand up for phone calls. “I’ve got a wireless phone headset; I make some long phone calls and conference calls, so during those I’ll get up and walk around.”
Active for life
While it’s important to break sedentary behaviour, we should all still aim to do the minimum recommended 150 minutes of at least moderate intensity physical activity every week.
Claire often hadn’t been taking a lunch break, but as a result of the pedometer challenge, she started using it as an opportunity to go for a walk. She and several of her colleagues made an effort to walk their children to school instead of driving. “This taught us that we often could leave the car at home, and it could be just as quick to walk,” she says.
Too many people sit back when they retire, but I believe you have to do something, whether it’s dog walking or voluntary work
Since his heart attack, Danny walks and cycles a lot, goes swimming three times a week and helps with cardiac rehab exercise classes twice a week. He says: “Too many people sit back when they retire, but I believe you have to do something, whether it’s dog walking or voluntary work.
“Riding a bike is not for everybody, but swimming is very good. And even things like getting off the bus one stop beforehand can make a difference. You could find you sleep better, too.”
His advice is to start off gently. “A friend of mine complained that he went swimming and ached all over afterwards. You need to start gently and keep doing it, then you won’t get aches and pains and you’ll feel the benefit.”
He adds: “I feel really fit, and I enjoy life. When I am cycling, I enjoy every minute. The endorphins kick in, and it feels great!”
How the BHF is helping
The BHF has been funding work in this area for many years. Professor Stuart Biddle says: “I received a grant in 2000 to look at sedentary behaviour in children, which was the first research in that area in this country.”
The BHF National Centre for Physical Activity and Health at Loughborough University has studied the evidence on sedentary behaviour for the Department of Health and has also been working to spread awareness among health professionals.