Sitting Will Kill You

I used to live in Minneapolis where there was a bar called Stand Up Frank’s. People used to say Stand Up Frank’s poured the strongest drink in town, and the bar had few if any chairs. Hence the name. Ironically, Stand Up Frank’s was onto something when it came to human health.

I learned this while attending a presentation at the Hillcrest offices of Active Living Research. Two Australian academics had come to San Diego to speak about the perils of a sedentary life, especially when the problem is sitting too much. Another irony: their talk took place in a small conference room that contained about half as many chairs as there were people in attendance. So a lot of us had to stand, just like those hard drinkers at Stand Up Frank’s.

The Aussies were Neville Owen, of the University of Queensland, and David Dunstan, of the Baker DID Heart & Diabetes Institute in Melbourne. Owen was 50ish, tall and thin with a bald head and a trim, white beard. Dunstan was younger and shorter. He had a sharp-ended nose and was fairly plump for a man involved in the study of active living. Both of them spoke in a way that did not disappoint. No polished Oxbridge tones. Just nice broad Aus-try-lian eck-sents.

The upshot of their research is that we sit down way more than is good for us.

“If you commute in your car, an hour or two a day at each end of the day,” said Owen, “you sit at your computer at work and then you go home and watch three or four hours of television, out of 16 hours you can sit for almost 14 if you really work at it. That’s a huge amount of sitting!”

And prolonged bouts of sitting bring a greater risk of diabetes and heart disease. OK, but isn’t sitting a lot alright if you make up for it by going to the gym occasionally to work up a sweat? Apparently not. Owen says the problem of too much sitting is distinct from the problem of getting too little vigorous exercise. He says adults can meet public health guidelines on physical activity, but still live an unhealthy sedentary life. This has given rise to a new concept: The active couch potato.

Let’s talk about watching TV. Dave Dunstan did a study that found each additional hour of television watching — per day — caused an 11 to 18 percent increased risk of mortality, cancer deaths aside. This was true regardless of leisure-time exercise levels. So TV rots your body as well as your brain.

Like most people, I earn my living sitting on my ass. This became clear three years ago when nerve pain, brought on by a traumatic brain injury, made it difficult to sit down on even a well-padded chair for more than five minutes at a time. Suddenly, staring at the computer became a lot more difficult. It was painful to sit down to a meeting or to read. I remember going to a play at the Old Globe Theatre and having to stand through the second act. I told the usher I had back troubles. Explaining nerve pain and its relation to TBI would have taken too long.

Dunstan said the problem with all that sitting is that it has replaced light-intensity physical activity.

“So what does that mean?” he asked, rhetorically. “Well, a lot of people use the term puttering around. It’s walking at non-brisk paces. So, when we’re in the office if we’re walking down to see a colleague, it’s a light intensity walking activity. It’s the type of activity where we move our muscles, but not sufficient to start to raise a sweat.”

Owen said just standing around is a workout we don’t get enough of.

“There are specialized large postural muscles… muscles whose main job is to maintain standing,” he said. “Now, when those muscles are working they are helping the body deal with excess amounts of sugar in the blood… helping the body to deal with blood fats.”

Long story short… if you sit down too much, you lose what you would have gained from standing up.

Capitalism being what it is, research like this has given rise to new products. In this case, a new collection of workplace furnishings. A company called Steelcase now sells lots of adjustable height desks. Put that desk on the high setting and you can take calls and tap at your computer while standing. They also sell the Walkstation, an adjustable height desk with a treadmill built in.

Jim Sallis, director of Active Living Research, uses one of those adjustable height desks. He points out the old human occupations of farm chores, gathering berries and hunting required lots of light-intensity activity. I asked if there are any jobs like that today.

“Well, you could think of a shopkeeper where you stocking shelves and moving around and helping customers. Waiters and waitresses… that’s pretty classic for being on the move all the time,” he said.

He adds that our culture, unfortunately, tells us sitting is better than standing. So how do we create a healthier counter-culture? Should we stop telling people to relax and take a load off? Should we tell them to put a load on??

I guess telling someone “get off your butt” is good advice even if they don’t accomplish anything aside from just standing up.

(Hear the audio version of this story that aired on KPBS)

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