5 Scary Things Sitting Does to Your Health

By Lauren Gelman

Bad news for couch potatoes and those of us chained to our office cubicles. We’ve been hearing for a while now that sitting is the new health villain to worry about, but lately the studies are really piling up. Worse, exercise seems to have little mitigating effect—even if you put in some solid gym time, it may not make up for being sedentary the rest of the day.

In fact, even people who meet the government recommendations for exercise (at least 150 minutes a week) are mostly sedentary, Northwestern University researchers recently found. In a study of 91 such women who wore activity monitors, the participants still spent 63 percent of their waking hours seated. They actually spent a greater portion of their day sitting than sleeping!

These recent studies (all published within the last six months) reveal how insidious sitting is for your body. Spending the day glued to your chair raises your risk of:

Diabetes: Avoiding couches and chairs may be an even more effective diabetes prevention strategy than exercising, according to a new British study in the journal Diabetologia. The researchers found that time spent sitting was associated with higher blood sugar and cholesterol, even after they accounted for such factors as time spent exercising and body fat, according to HealthDay.

Chronic disease: A recent large Australian observational study of more than 63,000 men between age 45 to 65 found that those who sat for four hours or less each day were much less likely to have chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. Another British study last year that pooled data on nearly 800,000 people found that those who sit for long stretches had double the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and death.

Lower odds of cancer survival: Colon cancer patients who sat for six or more hours a day had a 36 percent higher chance of dying from the disease than those who sat less than three hours a day, according to a recent American Cancer Society study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The reason isn’t well understood, but may have to do with sitting leading to worse glucose and insulin control, which may fuel tumor growth.

More fat around the heart: University of California, San Diego researchers recently took CT scans of about 500 older Americans. The more time the participants spent sitting, the more fat was deposited around their hearts, which raises the risk for heart disease. While regular exercise reduced the risk of fat buildup around other organs, it had no impact on heart fat.

Kidney disease: Women who sat less than three hours a day had a 30 percent lower risk of developing kidney disease than those who sat more than eight hours a day, found a British study of 5,600 people. Men had a 15 percent lower risk.

But there’s hope yet.   Small changes in your daily routine, such as walking errands instead of driving, or taking the stairs as often as possible, can cut down on your chair time and make a big difference. Case in point: this anecdote NYU physician Monica O. Weinberg, MD, shared on HuffingtonPost.com. One of her patients—a very sedentary, overweight man—decided to start walking one block a day, which turned into more blocks and flights of stairs. Six months later, he was walking 10 blocks and climbing eight flights of stairs each day—and lost 40 pounds! “He wasn’t going to the gym or running marathons,” she wrote, “but just adding a small amount of activity to his daily life resulted in a tremendous outcome.”