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We’ve spent this month on a mini-series of posts all about Move, one of the 7 foundations for the good life. We’re going to close out the mini-series with a post that’s about the opposite, sitting. What does the research say about how bad for us it really is, and how can we sit less?
Have you seen headlines in the last few years about how “sitting is the new smoking?” Have you wondered if there is any truth to that statement? It seems needlessly provocative to me. But the question remains, do we really need to sit less?
I don’t know about you, but I can’t avoid sitting. I work at a job that requires me to sit most of my day. Besides that, my favourite hobbies are done while sitting – writing, reading, calligraphy… So I sit a lot, despite trying to be active. And besides, sitting down in a comfy chair is, well, comfortable. Is it really that bad for me?
What does sedentary mean?
First off, let’s talk about a little vocabulary. In the research, the word used is “sedentary“. In older research articles, they used a continuum from very active to sedentary.
Sedentary –> Low activity —> Active —> Very active
Usually, someone was called active if they had at least 30 minutes of activity. If you’ve thought about this before, you already know the hole in that logic. If not, let’s go through a typical day that would be considered “active” using this definition.
10pm -6am Sleep
6am – 7am Get up, dress, eat breakfast
7am – 8am Drive to work
8am – 4pm Work at a desk – with short breaks to go to the washroom, break-room, etc
4pm – 5pm Drive home
5pm – 5:30pm Go for a run
5:30pm – 6:30pm Cook & eat
6:30pm – 10pm Watch TV
Go to bed & repeat.
This is a fairly typical day for a lot of people. We can see there is a lot of sitting in that day – at the dining room table, in the car, at a desk, in the break room, on the couch… Yet according to the old definitions, that 30-minute run is enough to make this person active.
More recent research sees physical activity going along two axes instead of one continuum. Here’s a chart of what I’m trying to describe.
The highest risk is in the group that has low activity and high sedentary time. The lowest risk is in the group that has high activity and low sedentary time. This means that we need to be aware of both our activity and our sitting time. It also means that we get health benefits from being active and getting our heart rate up, aka exercising. And we get benefits from breaking up the amount of time we spend sitting – in other words, sitting less. I hinted at this in the article, ‘How to get fit (when you hate to exercise‘.
What exactly does sitting do to our bodies?
This study is really interesting. They had people with type 2 diabetes come into a lab on 3 separate days. The researchers compared the effects of the experiment on their blood sugar and energy levels.
One day they had to sit for 7 hours. They were only allowed to stand to go to the washroom at specific intervals.
The other two days, they were also in the lab for 7 hours. This time, they got up every 30 minutes. One of the days they went for a 3-minute walk. The other day they did a short circuit of exercises for 3 minutes.
They did calf raises, half-squats, and knee raises for 20 seconds each and repeated that 3 times. (Check out the article for pictures that show each exercise.) The exercises were chosen because
- they don’t need any equipment,
- most people who are able to walk will be able to do these exercises, and
- an office worker could do it in their office without feeling weird about walking around the office for 3 minutes every half hour.
When they moved every half hour, the study participants had lower blood sugar. 1 They also reported that they had MORE energy throughout the day and in the evening. In other words, their health was better and they felt better – WIN-WIN!
It is also important to note here that there are a lot of studies being done right now on the question of how much sitting is too much. Our bodies do need rest and some of that rest is while we are sitting. (We’ll be spending December talking about sleep and rest. So make sure you sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss that discussion!)
This article talks about a meta-analysis of the effects of short activity breaks. 2 It seems like the negative effects on blood sugar and triglycerides (the storage form of fat in our body) kick in after about 1-2 hours of sitting. Most studies have people get up and move every 20 to 30 minutes for 1 to 2 minutes.
So how can you sit less and be happy about it?
1. Use the Pomodoro Technique to sit less
The strategy of getting up and moving every 30 minutes pairs nicely with a productivity technique called the Pomodoro Technique. 3 In the Pomodoro Technique, you work for 25 minutes and take a break for 5 minutes. This reduces the urge to procrastinate, increases focus, and increases creativity. It is especially effective when you’re working on the kinds of tasks that you would do on the computer.
2. Drink more water to sit less
Drinking more water can help you sit less – plus keep you hydrated. If you drink more water, you’ll have to get up to go to the washroom and to refill your glass. If you get up as soon as you empty your water bottle and as soon as you realize you need to go to the washroom, it can add up quickly. Depending on how far you have to go to get more water and go to the washroom, you may want to throw in a few body weight exercises while you’re up.
This strategy also pairs really nicely with the next one…
3. Use intuitive movement to sit less
Another strategy, would be to use intuitive movement! When you’re sitting, at some point you’ll start to get uncomfortable (as I am right this moment). That is your body telling you that you need to move. (I’m going to take a quick break from writing to go do a quick yoga session … A couple of good stretches and maybe some bodyweight exercises thrown in always makes me feel better!).
We’ve all had times when we end up losing track of the signals our body is sending to us. Perhaps we miss a meal. Or we know we need to go to the washroom, but oh, I’ll just do this one thing first. Or our body is sore from sitting so long and we need to move but I just want to get this thing done.
Many of us have also lost touch with that intuitive sense of what our body needs. Check out this article on intuitive eating for some ideas on how you can get back in touch with your intuition.
Sometimes we don’t have much choice to get up and move, like on an airplane or a bus. But most of the time, we do have a choice. And most of the time if we took the time to eat, go to the washroom, or move for 2 minutes, we’d actually be able to our work more effectively. We’d have more energy, we’d think clearer, and we would be a lot happier and healthier.
The point of this article isn’t to tell you that you’re doing things all wrong. Shame never solved any problems. The point of this article is to share some cool research and a couple of things that you can try, if you want to sit less.
You could set up a timer (like the Pomodoro technique) and work for 20-60 minutes and then take a 1-5 minute movement break.
You could aim to incorporate a little more intuitive movement. Learn the kinds of signals your body sends and how you can best address those signals – with curiosity and compassion.
Or you could do both, at the same time, or choose one or the other depending on the situation you’re in.
We tend to feel better, have more energy, and be healthier when we move often. That is why Move is one of the 7 foundations for the good life.
How can you bring more movement into your life?
- Their sugars stayed below 10 mmol all day and were also lower the next morning. Usual target for blood sugar is 4-7 before meals and 5-10 after meals.
- A meta-analysis is a study about studies. They look at the results from many studies to tease out the truth. A single study can easily be wrong. But when many studies say the same thing, and few studies say the opposite, we are more confident that the results are true.
- I wrote an article on Medium about why I love the Pomodoro Technique. The official Pomodoro website is another resource if you’re curious and they have an explanation of the method in video form as well.