On Your Health

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The Risk of Sitting Too Long

by Karen Massey, INTEGRIS dietitian

Most people are aware that engaging in physical activity yields tremendous health benefits. Still, researchers were curious if the “benefits of exercising” are offset by sitting too much? As it turns out; exercise does not completely offset the risk of sitting. If you’re one of those people who go for a go for a run every morning thinking that doing so negates your “desk job”—you need to reconsider.

Health-risk indicators

Researchers have linked prolonged sitting with a number of health-risk indicators, such as higher triglyceride, cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels. These risk indicators often occur simultaneously, and are sometimes (collectively) referred to as “metabolic syndrome.” Predictably, this syndrome is highly associated with insulin resistance and excess fat accumulations in the waist area. Typically people with metabolic syndrome are, in fact, overweight, but that’s not always so.

It is possible for a person to have a relatively normal body weight, or Body Mass Index (BMI) and still have elevated risk. While some of this risk is attributable to genetic factors--researchers were able to demonstrate aberrations in health if/when (seemingly healthy) people chronically sit. And, it held true even in some subjects, who exercise regularly, but spent the rest of the day in a chair. Put simply—sitting too much is detrimental, regardless of fitness.

Don't stop exercising

Rest assured the benefits of physical activity are countless! Exercise is absolutely known to be beneficial, as it strengthens the heart, lungs and muscles. Exercise has been shown to reduce mental stress and anxiety and is associated with improvements in cognitive function. However, regular exercisers should include movement throughout the day in addition to their regular exercise routine. Even simple activity—such as standing, stretching or shuffling relieves stiffness and gets the blood flowing. While shuffling around the room won’t help you achieve athletic goals—it does reduce risks of sitting.

One specific, yet poignant, example is the risk of blood clots. Pilots and air flight attendees have long been warned that international flights are inherently dangerous due to the length of time they are literally encapsulated in a small space. They are advised to move their legs frequently and stay hydrated (being at altitude worsens the likelihood of getting dehydrated). Immobility plus dehydration is an especially worrisome combination. Blood clots form more easily in people who have been sitting for extended periods of time. The reason is fairly logical—blood that’s “moving” isn’t as likely to “pool” in the lower extremities. Keeping the blood flowing may explain (at least partly) why the “risk of sitting” applied to people who do exercise, but are otherwise sedentary.

Ideas for movement

The good news is the “risk of sitting” can be minimized by simply moving limbs. Almost anything beats sitting. The essential goal is to move your limbs. You can follow a specific “routine” or you can just move your body parts randomly. He are some tips to get you moving.

  • Take walk breaks.
  • Stand up and move while talking on phone.
  • Limit your screen time and make it a personal goal to move your legs every hour.
  • Alternate between a desk chair and a physio-ball.
  • Keep a pair of light weight dumbbells, soup cans or therabands next to the sofa or desk to “cue” you to take stretch/strength breaks.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Move your printer so you have to walk to retrieve copies.
  • Park in the farthest spot from the building in the parking lot.
  • Walk down the hall to talk to a co-worker instead of sending an email.

More help

If you need more ideas for exercise at work or if you want to start an exercise program, visit the YMCA Healthy Living Center or call 405-951-3891.

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