Another blow against the couch (potato)
A couple of years ago, I decided it was time to upgrade my “soccer mom” status from cheering on the sidelines to actually being able to run the length of a soccer field myself. I was tired of reading tips for healthy living and guiltily skipping over the advice to exercise regularly. It was time to get down to business.
So I started walking, an activity even non-athletic me can handle. I’ve relished the satisfaction of trekking 52 miles in four half-marathons. I joined a gym and actually go a few times each week. Last summer, feeling like I wanted to push to the next level, I took a couch-to-5K class and learned a bit about running form and pacing and a lot about the power of distraction and accountability. Running my first 5K in September was great.
I was feeling pretty pleased with myself until I read a recent journal article about the relationship between the time you spend sitting each day and your chances of premature death. The researchers found if you sit all day, that’s a big problem, even if you exercise regularly. After all my fitness efforts, their findings felt like a low blow.
Like a lot of people with a desk job, I spend many hours each day at my computer. At home, if I have leisure time, I’ll curl up with a book or watch TV or a movie with my family. In other words, I sit a lot.
So back to the exercise thing. Being active makes me feel better and helps control my weight. According to the research, it also leads to lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc. Current public heath guidelines say a lot about increasing physical activity but don’t address time spent sitting around watching TV or working on the computer.
The researchers in this recent study collected activity information from about 123,000 participants in the American Cancer Society’s CPS-II Nutrition Cohort, a study of cancer incidence and mortality begun in 1992. They look at how much activity those folks had on a regular basis and how much time they sat, and compared that to their risk of death from any cause.
They found that men and women who sit the least were thinner, less likely to smoke, more likely to be employed, and ate less. For the most part, walking was their exercise of choice. Not surprisingly, the more the participants exercised, the lower their chances of dying. But (and here’s the rub), time spent sitting trumped physical activity, especially in women. Regardless if they were active, the longer they sat the greater the odds of death.
So, how to reduce time sitting? I asked Dr. Anne McTiernan, director of the Hutchinson Center’s Prevention Center, for some advice. She designs studies with the aim of reducing the 25 percent of cancers caused by excess weight and sedentary lifestyles.
“I do a lot of my home computing standing up,” she said. “I have my laptop on the kitchen counter, and I check my morning e-mail and do work standing. I also try to do some of my reading of journal articles and grants on my stationary bike.”
McTiernan also recommends building more activity into your life by commuting by bus (because you have to walk to and from the bus stop and often stand waiting for it) or shopping in person instead of just using the Internet.
In addition to not shelving my running efforts, I’ve added more standing and moving into my workday by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, printing documents at the printer down the hall instead of steps away, and chatting with colleagues in person rather than by e-mail.
Inspired to sit less? How will you incorporate that goal into your life?
By Colleen Steelquist
Quest science writer