If you knew how much I dislike donuts you’d understand how strong of a statement that is for me. Donuts are a mixture of three of the worst non-foods available: processed grains, hydrogenated vegetables oils and sugar. They have no nutritional value (unless you’re eating healthy homemade ones) and can harm your health in a variety of ways. And sitting too much can be worse.
The Problem With Sitting
Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death. – Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic
Dr. Levine further explains that sitting not only increases the risk obesity, but also the risk of cancers (like lung, endometrial, breast and prostate), heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and more.
His research and an analysis of many recent studies show that each hour we spend sitting takes about 21 minutes off of our lives (smoking only shaves 11 minutes off of your life. The jury is still out on how many minutes each donut takes away).
Here are some of the reasons why:
- We burn 50 less calories per hour when sitting (compared to standing)
- Sitting can cause the muscles to atrophy or tighten in certain places and lead to things like back pain
- Research is also showing that sitting for long periods causes the muscles to release less of the enzyme Lipase which controls proper breakdown of fats
- Sitting for long periods can reduce insulin sensitivity and increase risk of insulin resistance
- Sitting too much for an extended time can reduce bone density
Chris Kresser sums it up:
Even worse, too much sitting could shorten your life. Studies in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Asia have all found an association between increased sedentary time and the risk of early death. (6, 7, 8, 9) These associations were independent of traditional risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, waist circumference and diet.
Does Exercise Help?
What I found most interesting about the research on sitting is that the statistics remained true even if the person being studied exercised for the recommended amount each day. In other words- exercise doesn’t mitigate the harmful effects of sitting.
Even marathon runners and elite athletes who trained for hours a day but sat for the rest of their day were at risk because it was the act of sitting that caused the problem, not the lack of exercise.
This makes it important to modify our home and office environments to reduce the amount of time we spend sitting in the first place. I cover all desk chair options I’ve tried in this post, but which alternatives to sitting are really healthiest?
Is Standing Better?
One solution often offered to help avoid the harmful effects of sitting is to use a standing desk instead. I personally do this and notice that I am much more productive since making the switch.
Switching to standing for even just part of your day (3-4 hours) burns an extra 1000+ calories a week, which works out to the calories burned from running over 15 marathons when done for a year.
Reducing the amount of time spent sitting for even a few hours a day also drastically lowers the risk of the diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it is a step in the right direction.
I personally have this standing desk which I found for under $200 and it has lasted me several years and is still in great shape. I keep it in the corner of a room and it actually takes up less space than a conventional desk. Another unexpected benefit: my little kids can’t reach the top of my standing desk, so it is one of the few safe places in the house I can keep my camera or other delicate equipment.
While standing is a better solution, it has some downsides as well, including a higher risk of back strain and varicose veins.
A Step Up from Standing
Switching to a treadmill desk is another solution that offers even better benefits than just standing. It is cost and space prohibitive for many people, but it seems to be the best desk-optional available.
I don’t have one yet, (trying to convince myself we CAN fit one in our house!) but will definitely share my experience if/when I do. Typically a person walks very slowly on a treadmill desk (less than 2 mph) which is enough to get blood flowing without making it difficult or distracting to work.
I am planning to get a basic treadmill like this one to add to my standing desk. Another great option would be to find a used treadmill on Craigslist or a similar site (I’ve seen them for under $200 often) and build a simple desk to go around it.
The Best Solution
In a perfect world, the best solution would be to use a treadmill desk that encourages slow movement and also to take breaks at various intervals for some more specific movements.
A treadmill desk isn’t an option for many of us, so another great solution is to do some very specific short exercises for 2-5 minutes after every hour or so of sitting. I recently interviewed two physical therapists who specialize in exercises to counteract the negative effects of sitting, and they explain this in detail in this podcast episode.
Long story short, sitting kills and over the long term it can be worse for your health than smoking or eating donuts.
How much do you sit per day? Think about all the time you spend driving, working at a desk, watching TV, etc. It’s probably more than you think (it was for me!). Share below!
- Too Much Sitting: The Population-Health Science of Sedentary Behavior
- Sedentary behaviors increase risk of cardiovascular disease mortality in men.
- Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis
- Suppression of skeletal muscle lipoprotein lipase activity during physical inactivity: a molecular reason to maintain daily low-intensity activity
- How many steps/day are enough? Preliminary pedometer indices for public health.
Discussion (35 Comments)
I have read probably 70% of your posts and trust your advice because you not only support a healthy lifestyle but you live it and do research to back your claims up which is extremely helpful to prove things to family. Go you! Since reading your post, I have decided to stand while doing my school work. My family, like yours, home schools and so standing is a simple switch for me. Right now it’s stools on the kitchen table but hey, anything to save money! 😀 After reading this article, I was at first sad that I cannot sit for long amounts of time and tell myself I’ll be fine but then I realized that on average I sit for about six hours a day!!!! Six hours of my body burning like no calories and causing me shoulder and lower back pain. Now that I have stood for those six hours for two days, I feel great! Yes I have a bit of aches because my posture is straightening out, but otherwise I feel so good and no more back pain! I was not willing to accept back pain as a teenager. Uh uh no way. You have also inspired me to teach others about nutrition. So thank you Katy!
As someone who loves donuts, sits 10 (!!) hours a day at work (4 days a week), and is an avid tv watcher, this article was more than a little scary! But I really like the suggestions as to how to incorporate more activity, especially the ideas of an exercise ball and stationary bike in front of the tv. If I biked while I watched, I would be way more active than I am now! Thanks again for all the information and great ideas
Never heard of this before. What about kneeling at my desk which I am doing as I write this? I like the idea of standing more. Sometimes I eat standing! I will build a standing desk also.
I am going to create my own health website, mind if I send readers to yours?
I am a “health nut” and have been for 65 years. Thanks for your insights.
I use an exercise ball as a chair at work and it feels great! They’re very inexpensive and I feel so much better than just sitting in a chair, plus I think it’s a little easier to maintain than standing all day.
Three years ago I took my first office job where I had to sit at a desk all day. After 20 years as a nurse where I was active throughout my day, sitting all day was physically uncomfortable. I fortunately was able to transition to a remote position so now I work from home. I created a standing desk from an Ikea desk by lengthening the legs by putting PVC pipe “sleeves” over the original legs. I painted the PVC with a metallic paint and it looks great. I also have a chair so I continually change positions from standing to sitting. I have my exercise ball under the desk to put my feet up on when I am sitting so I don’t have pressure behind my knees. I feel so much better than when I had to sit all day long. I do think the key is to “interrupt sitting whenever you can”- as the information above states.
I do everything from my bed. Laying down. I talk on the phone,snack,watch tv and do leg lifts ect ect. So im rarely sitting. Is that bad too?
I work from home, sit a lot. But I like my desk not sure if I want to buy a new one. What about sitting on an exercise ball, good compromise?
Does sitting while shaking my legs up and down like a nervous maniac really count as sitting?
I can’t recommend Katy Bowman’s new book Move Your DNA (and everything else she has written). She is a super genius biomechanist. It isn’t sitting, or standing that is the problem — it is being stationary for extended periods of time (but treadmills aren’t necessarily a good option either, for other biomechanical reasons). She is also coming out with a new book on dynamic workstations soon. Don’t be afraid to sit, just do it as much as possible on the floor instead of in a chair. Change positions frequently and take walking breaks.
Hey there! I am a high school student, so I don’t have many options as far as avoiding sitting. I can’t exactly just stand in the back of the classroom, and exercises every hour also would not do. What do you suggest?
Like people trapped in an office, you want to take absolutely as much advantage as possible of times when you are not required to sit. So this means that if you can stand or move in school, do so (think maybe in gym class or during breaks between classes). Maybe look into getting a standing desk to work from at home and try to move as much as you can when not in school.