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If you’re slouched on the sofa or a chair right now, you may have a disease that’s becoming the most common—and dangerous—health threat in the United States, according to several new studies.

More than 50 million Americans suffer from “sitting disease,” a new medical term for a deadly epidemic of medical problems linked to a sedentary lifestyle, from obesity to diabetes, heart disease, depression, cancer, and early death. In fact, too much sitting can be just as hazardous to your health as smoking, even if you also exercise, researchers report.

Incredibly, average adults now spend 90 percent of their leisure time parked on their behinds—usually after slumping at their desk or computer for long hours at work. All that rump-resting and its associated ailments has given rise to a new field of scientific study known as “inactivity physiology,” which analyzes the toll sitting disease is taking on our health.

The good news, however, is that even if you have a desk job, easy changes can dramatically improve your health. Here’s a look at how to protect yourself.

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Stand Up—and Save Your Life

Spending more time on your feet could add years to your life, suggests a new studyof more than 222,000 people aged 45 or older, published in Archives of Internal Medicine.

The researchers reported that people who spent 11 or more hours a day sitting were 40 percent more likely to die in the next three years, regardless of how physically active they were the rest of the time, compared to those who sat for fewer than 4 hours daily, even when the study participants’ weight, exercise, and overall health were taken into account.

Step Away from the Screen 

A 2011 study found that people who spent 4 or more leisure hours sitting in front of a screen—typically watching TV, surfing the Web, or playing video games—had twice the risk of a major cardiovascular event resulting in hospitalization, death, or both, compared to those who spent less than two hours a day on those activities.

More motivation to limit TV and Internet time after work: People who devoted the most time on leisure-time screen-based entertainment had a 48 percent higher risk of dying prematurely, even if they also exercised. These links were independent of standard cardiac risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity.

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Take One-Minute Activity Breaks

The more often you get up and move, the more your heart and your waistline will benefit. In a recent study, prolonged sitting, even in people who also got moderate-to-vigorous exercise, was linked to worst indicators of cardio-metabolic health, including a larger waist, lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, and higher levels of triglycerides (blood fats) and C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker linked to heart disease risk).

However, even in people who spent much of the day plopped on their backsides, those who took the most breaks—even for a minute–from sitting had, on average, slimmer waists (by nearly 2 inches), lower levels of C-reactive protein, blood fats, and blood sugar, and other indicators of reduced risk for heart disease and diabetes, compared to those who took the fewest breaks.

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Adopt Easy, Healthy Habits

A key message from new studies is that 30 minutes a day at the gym may not do enough to counteract the detrimental effects of eight, nine, or 10 hours of sitting, says Genevieve Healy, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Cancer Prevention Research Centre of the University of Queensland in Australia.

That’s why researchers also recommend augmenting regular exercise by making simple changes throughout the day to help ward off sitting disease and its perils:

  • Get NEAT. An intriguing Mayo Clinic study shows that non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), such as taking the stairs, walking to lunch, parking at the far end of the lot, and standing or pacing during phone calls can be the difference between who’s fat and who’s slim. Although none of the participants exercised regularly, those who were slim burned an average of 150 more calories per day than those who were obese.
  • Clip on a pedometer. Wearing a pedometer motivates people to take up to 2,491 extra steps a day (about 1.25 extra miles), a study at Stanford University School of Medicine found. The researchers reviewed 26 earlier studies involving 2,767 people, most of whom were overweight and sedentary at the start of the study.
  • Meet face-to-face at work. Instead of emailing or phoning colleagues, stroll over to their office for some face time as you solve a problem or brainstorm. Some companies have launched email-free Fridays to dislodge employees from their chairs.
  • Switch to a standing desk. Standing burns three times as many calories as sitting, Mayo Clinic researcher James Levine, MD, Ph.D. reports. Or invite coworkers to join you in a walking meeting.
  • Revamp your commute. Taking the bus or train to work, instead of driving, can have a surprising health perk: North Carolina commuters who quit driving in favor of a new light-rail system shed more than 6 pounds in 18 months, because they were walking more.
  • Clean house. A recent poll found that the average person walks more than 22 miles and torches 50,000 calories a year doing housework.

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