By Lisa Fields for Next Avenue
Not long ago, when I interviewed one of the leading experts on “sitting disease” — the buzzy catch phrase that’s been attached to physical inactivity for the past few years — he walked in place on his treadmill desk while we chatted by phone. The irony wasn’t lost on me: I was sitting idly at my desk while writing an article about the health problems associated with sitting idly at desks. Meanwhile, the expert in the know was staying active, even though he had a desk job.
I recently added a treadmill desk to my office, which I fashioned myself out of a regular treadmill and some supplies from the hardware store. It’s empowering to work while walking at 1.6 miles per hour, knowing that I’m taking care of my health.
Why Sitting Has Become More Routine
Unless you make an effort to get moving, it can be easy to fall into a physically inactive lifestyle. You can accomplish some of the same tasks from a seated position today that required walking just a few years ago: Think online shopping and drive-through everything. And with the widespread popularity of screen time, you’re likely allured into a seated position by your smartphone, laptop or TV for several hours daily. Between your desk job, commute, meals and nightly leisure time on the couch, you probably sit for the bulk of your day.
Unfortunately, an inactive lifestyle can be detrimental to your health. Prolonged sitting is linked to a host of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cancer.
Luckily, research shows that there are simple ways to combat chronic physical inactivity, but it requires consistent effort; your morning walk won’t help to counteract the effects of a full day of sitting. Finding ways to add more movement all day long is key.
“Moving more frequently throughout the day, even at lower intensities and for shorter duration, has a positive impact on health markers and is just as important as regular exercise,” says Lauren Shroyer, director of product development for the American Council on Exercise.
Sneak Movement Into Your Lifestyle
Think about your daily schedule, then figure out ways to be more active.
“The default in America is to end up on your bottom,” says Dr. James Levine, author of Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It and president of Fondation IPSEN, a Paris-based nonprofit medical research foundation. “I want the default to be up and doing something.”
The last time that I spoke with Levine — who is also the former director of obesity solutions for the Mayo Clinic — he was walking on his treadmill desk. Now he says that people can inspire themselves to be more active by mapping out a weekly plan, scheduling one appealing activity each day: Window-shopping downtown, volunteering at the library, wandering the aisles at Walmart or spending the afternoon with grandkids.
“The trick is absolutely to find the stuff that you want to do,” Levine says. “There’s no point in going to weight training if you hate going.”
Get Up Often
The problem with sitting is that once you park yourself at your desk or on the couch, you’re likely to stay seated for hours. But regularly shifting from sitting to standing helps to improve your health and preserve your long-term mobility.
“Losing mobility is probably the Number One cause of all the deteriorating we see with aging,” says Joan Vernikos, author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals: How Everyday Movement Will Prevent Pain, Illness, and Early Death – and Exercise Alone Won’t, and former director of NASA’s life sciences division. “The most basic motion that you can do is structure your life so you have to change your posture often.”
For this reason, Vernikos advocates standing often, whether you place your water bottle just out of reach to encourage movement or train yourself to get up when commercials come on TV. Her research found that standing for one to two minutes every 20 to 30 minutes helps prevent deterioration caused by physical inactivity.
“Your body needs this on-off stimulation of changing posture,” Vernikos says.
Standing from a seated position seems like the simplest of skills, but as people get older, the inability to do this prevents some from being able to use the bathroom independently, which makes them more likely to end up in a nursing home or assisted-living facility, Vernikos says.
Be More Active at Work and Home
There are ways to counteract the inclination to stay seated all day.
“Most modern companies are offering some variant of active work: Walk-and-talk meetings, active lunchtime programs, walking clubs, running clubs, treadmill desks and standing desks,” Levine says. “There’s a whole range of active work opportunities, many of which cost nothing.”
If you’re retired, you don’t have to sit at home all day, even when you have no plans.
“Pacing the room while on the phone, using your standing work station or putting your laptop on the kitchen counter for 15 minutes are additional ways to work in more muscle activity throughout the day,” Shroyer says.
Do Things the Old-Fashioned Way
Just because there are modern conveniences doesn’t mean you have to use them constantly. Try doing activities the way you would have done them decades ago: Walk into your co-worker’s office to share an idea instead of emailing him. Visit the teller at the bank instead of frequenting the drive-through. Order something online, then pick it up at the store instead of having it shipped to you.
“If you want to improve or restore your mobility, be aware of what you’re not doing that you used to do,” Vernikos says. “Every time you go through the drive-through, you are aging yourself. Even getting out of your car and walking two steps to pick up your drugs at the pharmacy is something.”