By now you may have heard that our largely sedentary modern lifestyle is an increasingly large contributor to premature death. There’s now even a name for this condition: sedentary death syndrome, also known as “the sitting disease.”
How serious is sedentary death syndrome? Recent reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest it could be the third-leading cause of death worldwide, after heart disease and cancer.
It’s one thing to recognize that prolonged sitting is bad for your health and another to identify strategies to limit the amount of time you spend sitting each day. It’s yet another matter altogether to understand exactly how all this sitting is negatively affecting your health.
How is prolonged sitting affecting us?
Sedentary death syndrome refers to a series of negative health consequences that arise from prolonged physical inactivity. As the name suggests, many of these consequences are deadly. So let’s look at how they’re affecting us.
The first cog in the wheel is caloric imbalance or, in simpler terms, consuming more calories than you burn. This, in turn, results in elevated levels of insulin (hyperinsulinemia), which leads to an increase in adiposity, i.e. weight gain and obesity. Being obese provokes insulin resistance, which opens the gateway to diabetes and a whole host of cardiovascular diseases.
This cascade of ill effects explains why sedentary death syndrome correlates with double the risk of diabetes, up to 90% higher risk of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, coronary artery disease and stroke and up to 49% greater risk of mortality from all causes. It’s also been associated with higher risk of osteoporosis, erectile dysfunction and certain cancers. And the news gets worse before it gets better.
A 2009 study that followed more than 17,000 Canadians aged 18 to 90 for 12 years not only showed a positive association between sitting time and mortality from all causes (except cancer), it also suggested that those who spend the better part of their day sitting will still have an elevated risk of mortality even if they are physically active.
In other words, exercise alone won’t compensate for all the time you spend on your bottom.
On a genetic level, expression of certain genes (like the GLUT4 gene, responsible for effectively transporting glucose) is higher in physically active individuals when compared to type-2 diabetics and sedentary individuals. Physiologists are now working on studies to compare the molecular, physiological and clinical effects of too much sitting with responses that would be seen in someone with a structured program of exercise. Which brings us to the good news…
Exercise – the natural cure for sedentary death syndrome
The cure for the sitting disease is obvious: sit less and move more!
While regular exercise is important, it’s also vital that you do whatever you can to limit the time you spend sitting. In practical, day-to-day terms, you can do simple things like take regular breaks to get up from your desk and move around, get up and talk to an office colleague instead of phoning or emailing and stand up or walk around while talking on the phone.
In terms of exercise, try to find an activity you enjoy and do it for at least 30 minutes, 3-5 times per week. Naturally, the more exercise you do the greater the benefit – and it’s not just your physical health that will improve.
Along with the increased risk of physical diseases, prolonged sitting has been associated with a greater risk of depression. A 2013 Australian study found that women who sat for more than seven hours a day had a 47% higher risk of depression than those who sat for four hours or fewer. Significantly, women who didn’t participate in any physical activity showed a 99% greater risk of developing depression than those who exercised.
Exercise stimulates the release of “feel good” chemicals and neurotransmitters like oxytocin and serotonin, making it a powerful weapon against depression. Some studies, in fact, have found exercise to be even more effective than antidepressant drugs for improving mood and well-being.
Our bodies were designed to be active. With a few small tweaks to your daily routines, and a renewed focus on regular physical activity, you can buck the 21st century trend and reduce your risk of sedentary death syndrome.