If I told you that you might be doing something everyday that can be as dangerous for your health as smoking, would you be surprised?  Would you be even more surprised to find out that this action is something as simple as sitting too much throughout the day?

The sad truth is that sedentary life is dangerous, and really is now considered a greater health threat than smoking!  Americans spend way too much time sitting.  While 6 hours a day is considered to increase your risk of an early death, the average American sits for over 9 hours a day, and many for as much as 14 hours!  Even if you are spending a good amount of time running or exercising, too much time sitting can negatively affect your body.

So what is it about sitting that makes something so seemingly innocuous actually so dangerous?  There are 3 main issues:

  • You decrease your NEAT

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis is all the movement you do other than your actual workout.  All those times I tell you to take the stairs instead of the elevator or walk the kids to school?  That is all about increasing your NEAT, and increasing your calorie burn.

  • Lack of movement in muscles and blood flow cause problems

Two possibilities for how lack of movement specifically causes problems for our bodies are first, that lack of muscle activation causes blood sugar issues (as muscles help regulate blood sugar levels), and 2) blood not moving as well throughout the bodies can cause damage to blood vessels, and blood pooling (which can lead to some serious problems).

  • Sitting too often may “fool” your body into thinking it needs to gain weight

Okay, this is only in the beginning stages of research, and has only been found in mice, but it has some promising connections to humans.  Basically, the theory is that we have a built-in body weight regulator in our lower limbs.  So, when we sit too often, we may “fool” our regulator into thinking we are lighter than we actually are, since there is rarely much weight on your lower limbs.  Read more about it here.

The question then becomes, what do we do about it?  The first suggestion is to find a different way to work, if possible—either working more activity into your workday, utilizing a treadmill desk if possible, or using a balance ball (swiss ball, exercise ball—the really big ones) to sit on.  While you are still sitting, you will at least be utilizing muscles to sit upright, which will help your NEAT points.

Another idea, from the folks at IDEA Fit, is to move “3 For Every 30”.  Basically, their suggestion is that after every 30-minute session behind your desk, or wherever else you may be sitting for long periods (except driving… that one is a problem), you take a 3-minute mini-workout break.  This can be walking intervals (walk briskly for a short period, then slowly for a period—for example, 30 seconds/30 seconds, or 15/45 if you are just starting out, or 45/15 if you are a steady walker already), or a tiny strength circuit (half squats, heel raises, marching) for just 3 minutes.  Get the blood flowing, muscles activating, body feeling your actual weight—and then go back to work for another half hour.

Finally, if these options aren’t plausible, or maybe you want even more, the activity will have to come in your leisure time.  This is where taking walks, working out, and finding little ways of being active instead of sitting and watching TV will make all the difference.

Remember, these are not necessarily things that will change your life in some huge way in the immediate.  Rather, they are long-term improvements to get in place now, to offer you protection for your health as you get older.