Let’s start with the basics. Since childhood you’ve known being a couch potato is bad. But why? Simply put, our bodies weren’t made to sit all day. Sitting for long periods of time, even with exercise, has a negative effect on our health. What’s worse, many of us sit up to 15 hours a day. That means some of us spend the bulk of our waking moments on the couch, in an office chair, or in a car.
Sitting all day long isn’t hard to counteract, but you have to keep your eye on two details: your daily activity and the amount of time you sit. Let’s start by taking a look at what sitting all day does to your body.
An Estimated Timeline of the Effects of Sitting
It’s difficult to get an accurate assessment of what sitting all day will do to you because the effects work in tandem with diet and other risk factors. So we’re going to start with a relatively healthy person who does not drink in excess, smoke, and who isn’t overweight. Then we’ll estimate the effects of sitting for over six hours a day based on what starts happening immediately after you sit down. For a general overview of the effects, take a look at this chart from Medical Billing and Coding to see a breakdown of what that happens in your body when you sit down. (If the majority of your sitting time takes place at a desk, keep in mind that a standing desk has its own problems, too.)
Immediately After Sitting
Right after you sit down, the electrical activity in your muscles slows down and your calorie-burning rate drops to one calorie per minute. This is about a third of what it does if you’re walking. If you sit for a full 24-hour period, you experience a 40 percent reduction in glucose uptake in insulin, which can eventually cause type 2 diabetes.
After Two Weeks of Sitting for More Than Six Hours a Day
Within five days of changing to a sedentary lifestyle, your body increases plasma triglycerides (fatty molecules), LDL cholesterol (aka bad cholesterol), and insulin resistance. This means your muscles aren’t taking in fat and your blood sugar levels go up, putting you at risk for weight gain. After just two weeks your muscles start to atrophy and your maximum oxygen consumption drops. This makes stairs harder to climb and walks harder to take. Even if you were working out every day the deterioration starts the second you stop moving.
After One Year of Sitting More Than Six Hours a Day
After a year, the longer term effects of sitting can start to manifest subtly. According to this study by Nature, you might start to experience weight gain and high cholesterol. Studies in woman suggest you can lose up to 1 percent of bone mass a year by sitting for over six hours a day.
After 10-20 Years of Sitting More Than Six Hours a Day
Sitting for over six hours a day for a decade or two can cut away about seven quality adjusted life years (the kind you want). It increases your risk of dying of heart disease by 64 percent and your overall risk of prostate or breast cancer increases 30 percent.
If this looks bad, don’t worry. We’re going to show you how to counteract the negative effects of sitting without totally altering your lifestyle. Photo by John O’Nolan.
Counteract the Consequences of Sitting and Still Maintain Your Current Lifestyle
Happlily, you only need to do two things to counter the effects of sitting all day:
- Remember to stand once an hour.
- Get about 30 minutes of activity per day.
Whether you’re a couch potato watching marathons of Firefly or an office worker sitting in front of a computer, an Australian study suggests short breaks from sitting once an hour can alleviate most of the problems described above. This isn’t about working out (which is positive in its own right but doesn’t counteract the effects of long periods of sitting). It’s about creating pockets of moderate activity throughout the day and giving your body a respite from sitting.
What exactly is moderate activity? I talked with Dr. Brian Parr, associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences at the University of South Carolina Aiken to find out. He points out the distinction between moderate activity and exercise:
We usually tell people moderate activity is equivalent to a brisk walk. This would include yard work or cleaning your house — anything that gets you moving counts. You don’t have to do what people think of as exercise.
Of course, couch potatoes and office workers don’t always have thirty minutes to spare. After all, a Firefly bender might take up an entire evening. Here’s the good news: you can break up that thirty minutes throughout the day. Dr. Parr continues:
This is the best part. We usually tell people to break it up into ten minute segments, but that’s because it’s the most practical. If I tell you that you can spread it out throughout the day, you’re going to say, “Well, I stood up and walked across the room to my soda.” What was that, about ten seconds? You’ll start to micromanage. From my perspective, that’s not how people should do it. But you could do it that way.
The main reason you want to shoot for the ten minute chunks is because you’re creating a mini-stress in your body that helps increase your endurance. In the real world, this means you won’t get tired halfway up the stairs. Think of it this way: you don’t train for a marathon by sprinting for ten minutes every day. Instead, you increase your endurance with longer jogs. The same goes for daily activity, you want to sustain activity for long enough to make it useful in your daily life.
Let’s look at how you can estimate your daily activity and make sure you get out of the office chair throughout the day. Photo by cell105.
Start by Finding Your Daily Baseline with a Pedometer
The first thing to do is track how much activity you get in a regular day. For me, the easiest way to do this is a pedometer that tracks the number of footsteps I take. You can purchase a cheap $3 pedometer like this one from Amazon, or use an app on your iPhone or Android.
The first step is to take a 30-minute walk and see how many steps you take. My total was a little short of 4,000. Yours will vary based on how quickly you walk and how large your steps are.
Next, you want to find a baseline of your daily activity. Start using the pedometer when you wake up in the morning and keep it in your pocket (or running on your phone) until you go to bed. This will give you an estimate of your regular daily activity.
For me, this was frighteningly low on the days I didn’t purposely exercise. My total number of steps? Under 2,000. This is downright horrible and equates to less than a mile a day. Clearly, I need to get up and move around more often. Photo by Adam Engelhart.
Meet Your Daily Activity Target by Slightly Altering Your Behavior
If you’re like me, you’re well under your target exercise range. A few simple changes to your daily behavior will help you reach your goal. Here are a few ideas for how to do it without really trying:
- Park near the back of the parking lot.
- Stand up to visit the file cabinet instead of rolling your chair.
- Walk over and talk to a coworker instead of emailing them.
- Take the scenic route to the bathroom instead of the most direct.
Since I work from home, I have to make a more concentrated effort to meet these goals. I’ve started walking to a nearby coffee shop in the afternoon and I hop on an indoor bicycle for at least 10-20 minutes a day. If all else fails, I’ll do laundry because I have to walk down two sets of stairs.
Set an Hourly Standing Alarm to Remind You to Stand
We know that if you stand up for just one or two minutes every hour, it can reduce the negative effect of sitting all day. Technically, you don’t even have to move, the act of standing alone helps. When you’re in the moment and working hard, it’s difficult to remember. I found enabling the hourly announcement in OS X the best reminder. To set this, click Settings > Date & Time > Announce the time. Windows users can set up a similar hourly reminder as a task by clicking Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Task Scheduler.
If the alarm isn’t enough, you can download dedicated software to remind you. Windows users can use free programs like, Workrave or Breaker to set up automated alerts. For Macs, Time Out seems the best free option. These programs will remind you to stand and dim the desktop to force you out of your chair.
It’s up to you how you use these micro-breaks. You don’t even have to move if you don’t want to, but if you want to get a little activity in that minute, here’s a quick way to do it without leaving your desk area:
- Stand up.
- March in place for twenty seconds.
- Reach down and try to touch your toes for twenty seconds.
- Wander around and pick up or reorganize for the last twenty seconds (eventually your desk area may even be clean).
I also set up an iCade at a standing level so I have something to occupy me when I stand up. Personally, I need objectives and I’m not good at just idling for a few minutes. The iCade adds a sense of purpose if I don’t want to stretch.
Turn those Crappy Commercials into an Excuse to Get Up
TV commercials suck. Instead of wasting time watching the same car commercial you’ve seen for the last 20 years, consider the commercial break a chance to stand and stretch.
To help me find constructive things to do during commercials (or the credits when I’m in the midst Netflix marathon), I keep a to-do list on the coffee table as opposed to at my desk. This works as a gentle reminder to take out the trash, do the dishes, clean the litter box, or whatever else needs to get done. The best part? I don’t have to watch commercials.
On a similar note, when playing video games online, I use the end of a match as a notification to stand up. If I’m playing a single player game, I stand during loading screens.
The point is that most of the activities we sit down to enjoy have these types of natural breaks in them. If you’re reading you can stand up after a chapter or two. If you’re playing board games you can stand up after each match. Instead of sitting and turning your mind off, stand and do it. It’s really that simple.
The moral here is two-fold: stand up once an hour and get at least 30 minutes of activity in a day. That’s it. Unless you’re overweight, you don’t have to start exercising or going to the gym to counteract the negative effects of sitting. You just have to make sure you’re moving throughout the day. You don’t even have to give up your TV marathons—you just need to accent them with a little hourly effort.