Get Up! Sitting Less Can Add Years to Your Life

Whether you exercise every day or not, you still need to cut down the time you spend sitting in a chair

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Sitting for more than three hours a day can cut two years off a person’s life expectancy, even if he or she exercises regularly, a new study finds. Watching TV for more than two hours a day can shorten life expectancy even further, by another 1.4 years.

The findings suggest that when it comes to gleaning health benefits from physical activity, it may not be enough just to get the recommended amount of daily exercise — the government advises about a half-hour of moderate activity a day for adults. But what about the other 23.5 hours of every day? Researchers say it’s important not to spend it sedentary or sitting.

In the same way that both pushing the gas and hitting the brake can adjust the speed of your car, researchers say that physical activity and sedentary behavior independently affect your health and life expectancy. Whether “you’re physically active and meet the exercise guidelines, or if you’re not active,” says Peter Katzmarzyk, professor of epidemiology at Pennington Biomedical Research Center and lead author of the new paper published in the online journal BMJ Open, “sitting is bad.”

(MORE: A Daily Walk Can Reduce the Power of Weight-Gaining Genes)

Katzmarzyk’s isn’t the first study to document the ill effects of sedentary behavior. An Australian study published last August found that people who watched an average of six hours of TV a day lived 4.8 years less than those who didn’t watch any television; what’s more, every hour of TV that people watched after age 25 was associated with a 22-minute reduction in their life expectancy.

The current analysis differed from previous research in that it took a broader look, calculating the cumulative effect on overall life expectancy of a sedentary population. Recent surveys show that worldwide people spend about 300 minutes, or 20% of their day, sitting; many people spend much longer. Shaving at least a couple of hours off that time — by turning off the computer, TV or other digital media, for example — could add years to life expectancy, the new study suggests.

To gauge the effect of being sedentary, Katzmarzyk and his colleagues pooled data from five studies that asked participants about their sedentary habits, including how much time they spent sitting, watching TV or using the computer screen. The researchers folded in the mortality risk associated with sedentary behavior, and then calculated how many years of life would be gained if these risk factors were removed from life expectancy calculations.

Sitting, it turns out, can shorten life expectancy almost as much as smoking can, which highlights just how damaging inactivity can be, particularly for the heart. “What the results mean is that we got everyone in the U.S. to sit less, our population life expectancy would be two years higher, so instead of living to 78.5, we would be expected to live to 80.5 years old,” says Katzmarzyk. “That’s a really big deal.”

(MORE: The Upside of Peer Pressure: Social Networks Helps Kids Exercise More)

But getting people to spend less time in their chairs isn’t easy, especially for those who work sedentary jobs at an office desk. Even people who meet the government’s exercise guidelines may spend most of the rest of their days parked on a sofa or chair.

You can start by getting up from your chair intermittently at work. Take walks around the hall in your office or try holding walking meetings instead of sitting around a table. Get up to chat with your colleague instead of sending an email. Standing doesn’t take the place of exercise, but it should replace a good chunk of time you spend in your chair. The key is to spend as little time as possible sitting down.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

19 comments
Cliff-Rich
Cliff-Rich

Well if anyone cares, we just started making these for other folks because they liked the ones we made ourselves. They're sourced from 100% renewable bamboo and we make them here in California. http://standeeco.com . Would love your thoughts!

cypoole
cypoole

so basically we are shortening our children's lives  by sending them to school...where they sit 8 hours a day? This is ridiculous, no one can avoid sitting 3 hours a day unless they eat standing up.

Paula Sharkey
Paula Sharkey

How about, we just stop eating like crap... just a thought.

Jess Hutchins
Jess Hutchins

Why is everyone so focused on living longer?  The population is large enough as it is, and the costs to society of an aging population are discussed every day.  Can't we just focus on enjoying the time we have, instead of worrying so much about trying to extend it an extra 22 minutes?!?

talfonso
talfonso

Lunch  break walks and (if time allows) gym stints are sometimes not enough to prolong life. You have to stand up and stretch or walk every 30-60 minutes. As a faithful Oxycise! user, I heard about an office workout from that exercise program. So if taking the stairs, walking around at lunch, or strength training doesn't work, add Oxycise! so you would stand less and be inclined to move around (read: exercise) more. It can help you sit less and eventually burn fat and calories.

http://www.oxycise.com

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Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

I think a LOT of the problem is the poor sitting posture due to the design of many chairs to start with, especially in offices. Fixing that problem will mean a lot better health for a lot of people. (Sure, few companies can afford the circa US$1,000 per chair cost of a Herman Miller Aeron chair, but there are plentiful good alternatives for a fraction of the cost.)

Standing Fit
Standing Fit

Easy fix for this.  A convertible standing desk; a "Standing Fit".  Check it out!

bk2259
bk2259

Studies like this are why treadmill desks were created. Mashable has been testing it for a few months, and published their review Tuesday, if anyone is curious how they work: http://goo.gl/0T9D2

bk2259
bk2259

Studies like this are why treadmill desks were created. Mashable has been testing it for a few months, and published their review Tuesday, if anyone is curious how they work: http://goo.gl/0T9D2

Meredith Schneider
Meredith Schneider

I guess I'll live longer since it's not possible for me to sit that long!! : )

Brent Warren
Brent Warren

Am I supposed to jog in place while I'm reading this magazine (online or in print)? Or can I sit then?

mahadragon
mahadragon

Opening paragraph is complete bulls***. Where in the questions of the study did they take into account both sitting down for 3 hours AND exercising regularly? As far as the article says, the only questions they covered was how sedentary people were. They did not take exercise into account.

Alistair
Alistair

How about standing to eat? I've read it's not good to do that, but after reading this article it would certainly be a good chunk of time when you're not sitting.

davids12
davids12

Well cool - if I spend less than three hours a day sitting in front of my computer at my office, that's pretty much a guarantee I'll get fired, so it's nice to know that my job is slowly killing me. Thanks for the cheery update, Time.

Bill_Compton
Bill_Compton

 Try a standing desk. There are some great commercially available desks,

or you can just plop your keyboard and monitor on a box to see if you

like it. Takes a little getting used to but it's a great way to reduce

your time-in-chair!