Back in the 1990s at the Pritikin Longevity Center, we all thought that one of our educators, Dr. Bill McCarthy, had gone a little overboard.
At meetings, he’d pop up from his chair every 20 minutes and circle the room for a minute or two. In his office, he’d talk on the phone while standing or strolling around. “It’s how to live a longer life,” he’d smile while taking a peek at his pedometer, always attached to his size 32 belt.
Simply getting out of your chair every half hour or so and strolling around for a couple of minutes can reap big benefits.
We loved Bill, but wondered: “Really? Isn’t his 45 minutes on the treadmill every morning enough?”
Today a growing body of research is revealing that Bill was right. It’s not a good thing to sit for long periods of time, even if we’ve put in a good sweat every morning in the gym.
That was the conclusion of a study of 240, 819 American adults, ages 50 to 71, published earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition1. Following these subjects for eight years, scientists found (as expected) that those who sat seven or more hours a day watching TV were much more likely to get sick or die than those who watched just an hour of TV a day.
But here’s the kicker: Even among people who exercised regularly (they worked out about an hour each day), high amounts of TV viewing – seven-plus hours daily – was associated with increased risk of death compared with regular exercisers who watched TV one hour or less a day. Concluded lead author C.E. Mathews and NCI colleagues: “Participation in high levels of MVPA [moderate-vigorous physical activity] did not fully mitigate health risks associated with prolonged time watching television.”
Dangers of too much sitting
Why are prolonged periods of sitting a problem? Research is now finding that the more we sit, the higher risk factors like blood sugar rise, and the less efficiently our bodies burn fat throughout the day.
“ARRGH!” we can hear many of you saying. “Don’t tell me I’ve got to do more than my daily workout. When am I supposed to fit it in?”
Small changes, big returns
We have very good news. According to new research, small changes can have a huge impact. And you don’t have to break into a training-heart-rate sweat. Far from it. Simply getting out of your chair every half hour or so and strolling around for a couple of minutes can reap big benefits. Science has found that blood sugar and insulin sensitivity improve, cholesterol and triglycerides improve, and levels of lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that aids in the breakdown of fat in the bloodstream, improve – all of which can significantly impact overall health, and lead to a longer life.
A study recently published in Diabetes Care2 showed just how valuable getting up from our chairs on a regular basis can be. Researchers recruited participants aged 45 to 65 who were either overweight or obese. In the first part of the study, the subjects sat for five hours straight. Throughout this five-hour period, their blood glucose and insulin levels were measured.
In the second part of the study, the subjects again sat for five hours and had their blood tested. But every 20 minutes, they stood up and walked on a treadmill at a light-intensity pace for two minutes. Just two minutes. In the third part of the trial, also lasting five hours, they once again walked every 20 minutes for two minutes, but this time at a moderate-intensity pace.
Glucose, insulin benefits
There were two key findings, reported lead scientist David Dunstan, PhD, at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia. First, glucose and insulin levels were much more effectively controlled when sitting was interrupted with physical activity compared to sitting with no interruptions.
The other key finding was that light-intensity interruptions (the equivalent of strolling) were just as effective as moderate-intensity interruptions at improving blood glucose and insulin levels.
This is encouraging news, concluded Dr. Dunstan, “because ‘light’ is something that people could incorporate into their working day.”
“The implication for office workers and other people who sit for long periods is that if they can break up their sedentary seating time more frequently throughout the day, they’re going to have a better health profile,” states Dr. Dunstan. “In the future, we may start to see a change in the occupational health and safety recommendations to incorporate breaking up of sedentary time throughout the day.”
One simple – and motivating – way to add a few more steps to your life is by wearing a pedometer, available for just a few dollars in sports equipment stores nationwide. As Dr. McCarthy showed us 20 years ago, it’s fun to watch those steps tally up. Generally, 2,000 steps equal one mile.
And, of course, the more we get out of our chairs, the more calories we burn, which can help shed weight. Little spurts of energy do add up. In a newly published study3, researchers at the University of Tennessee found that when people stood up and marched in place during the commercials of a one-hour TV show (there were 21 minutes of commercials), they took roughly 2,100 steps. What’s more, the subjects burned on average 150 calories. Yep, 150 calories…gone. In one year, that could add up to about 15 pounds…gone.
Below are a few simple tips to help you get up and moving throughout the day (without ever needing to change into workout gear).
Tips For Breaking Up Sitting Time
At the office:
- There are no rules against standing during meetings. Try it.
- Instead of sending an email, walk to a colleague’s office.
- When reading something on your computer, stand. Reserve sitting time for typing.
- Take a walk during your lunch break.
- Conduct one-on-one meetings while walking outdoors.
- Stand up and move around while talking on the telephone.
- Consider a height-adjustable desk that permits working in both a sitting and standing posture.
- Use stairs instead of elevators.
- At the very least, get up and move every hour.
- Limit your total amount of screen viewing/sitting time to two hours a day.
- Use TV commercial breaks for household chores.
- If you taped your TV shows on your DVR, hit “PAUSE” when the commercials begin and walk around the house for a minute or two, maybe finish up a chore like emptying the dishwasher. Then sit back down and hit “PLAY.”
- After dinner, walk around the neighborhood.
- If you have a treadmill or other aerobic equipment at home, set the pace at low intensity and try reading your newspaper, e-reader, or book while you move.
- If you have household chores that call for you to be active, spread them out throughout the day so you can break up long periods of sitting.
- Cultivate leisure activities that encourage movement. Tend your garden, ride your bike, work in your shop, or cook your favorite Pritikin meal.
Dr. McCarthy (who today, in his late 60s, is still thin and fit) knew what he was talking about. Getting out of our chairs is vitally important. And every step counts. Every step leads us to a longer life – and more energy and joy for all the tomorrows ahead.