Body : An Article about Sitting Down and Standing Up - From the i Newspaper
As new research shows prolonged periods of sitting increases the risk of dementia (among a plethora of other health issues), experts share everything you need to know about counteracting it
All You Need To Do Is Stand Up
By Anna Bonet
September 29, 2023 in the i-Newspaper
Consider how many hours you spend sitting down each day, whether at your desk, on your commute or on your sofa. Then count how many times within those hours you tend to get up and move around.
If your number is rather low – and you’re able to stand and walk – it might be worth appraising your daily movements. Prolonged periods of sitting is associated with a higher risk of dementia, according to a new study conducted by scientists at the University of Southern California and the University of Arizona, adding to an already rather long list of known harmful health implications.
“I explain it a bit like having a car; something that is intended to move,” says Dr Kelly Mackintosh, a world-renowned researcher in sedentary behaviour and professor of sport and exercise science at Swansea University. “When the car sits there being unused, all the oil can clog up and things corrode. This is essentially what happens to our bodies and our arteries.”
The health risks are prolific. Research shows that prolonged sitting leads to muscle weakness and imbalances, digestive issues, worsened mental health, reduced bone density and not surprisingly, poor posture.
“There is also a strong link with various chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer,” says Dr Chun Tang, GP and medical director of Pall Mall Medical. “Sitting for extended periods can affect insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, all of which are risk factors for these conditions.”
So it comes as little surprise that being sedentary is not linked with longevity. “Several studies have shown that prolonged sitting is associated with a higher risk of premature death,” adds Dr Tang. “And even if you engage in regular exercise, it may not fully offset the negative effects of sitting for long periods.”
This is possibly the hardest part to swallow: exercising once a day is not enough, even if it is vigorous. A large-scale study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise compared a group of “active couch potatoes”, who worked out for 30 minutes then sat almost non-stop for 10 hours, with a group of people who got up and moved around every so often. The latter group had substantially better health outcomes.
“Clearly, doing any type of activity is going to help overall health, but sedentary behaviour and physical inactivity are actually independent risk factors,” explains Dr Mackintosh. “So, Government guidelines would suggest that adults need to be active for 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous intensity. But they also have sedentary behaviour guidelines of minmising sitting to less than two hours.
“So by definition, you could be active because you can do more than 150 minutes of exercise a week, but you could still be sedentary. And because they are independent, you still have the risk factors associated with sitting even if you engage in that exercise.”
The good news is that it is not that hard to counteract. All you need to do is stand up.
“Standing engages the muscles needed to keep you balanced and upright,” says Jasmine Ward, MSK physiotherapist at Bupa Health Clinics. “This means you’re putting your body under a higher level of baseline exertion, which can lead to improvements to your blood pressure and circulation.”
“It’s useful to hold yourself accountable for movement you do throughout the day, so think about where you can fit five- to 10-minute movement breaks into your schedule,” she continues. “It might be by going for a brisk walk on your break, walking around during phone calls, taking a purposely longer route on your commute, or simply setting a reminder to get up and move.”
The question is how often that should be. Is there a magic number we should all be aiming for? “There has been a lot of work done by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, and what they are finding is that breaking up sitting every 30 minutes has positive health outcomes,” says Dr Mackintosh.
However, she adds by caveat that this research has largely been done in lab settings. “We’ve done more work in collaboration in a study in Wales, and looked at doing prompts using an app to break up sitting time by standing every 30 or 60 minutes,” she says. “And what we found is that every 60 minutes has actually been more beneficial, largely because people are more likely to actually do it than the 30 minutes.”
Having said that, she emphasises, the consensus is clear: “The more often you break up prolonged sitting, the better.”