We sit a lot.
From the time we enter elementary school until we retire from our careers, the majority of weekday time is spent sitting.
We sit in the car. We sit at our desks. We sit in meetings. We sit and watch sports. We sit in movie theaters.
We’re not lazy. Most of us are super-busy. Days are filled with meetings, phone calls, emails, direct messages, tweets, texts and more. We’re so busy that we fool ourselves into thinking we’re active during the day.
Research shows that almost two out of three people classify themselves as “active” even though only about 5% of people actually are.[i]
Yet with all the busy-ness in our days, most of us move far to little to maintain the health of our priceless bodies.
Television and video game time have taken the blame for years, for our lack of activity. But it’s actually our work and school environments that cause the greatest amount of sedentary time. People spend more time sitting during weekdays than they do on their days off.[ii]
Fortunately, many companies are catching on to the importance of keeping their employees active during the day.
Moving more throughout the day holds the promise of better employee health and productivity and reduced healthcare costs, not to mention better job satisfaction.
High-top conference tables, standing workstations and walking meetings are not a passing fad. They’re here to stay.
Sitting Wrecks Your Metabolism
You can take that literally. Extended periods of inactivity wreak havoc on your metabolism, even if you eat well and exercise regularly.
Bed rest studies give us a great idea of what happens to the body when inactivity is taken to an extreme.
These studies show that a lack of movement contributes to insulin resistance, worsening of blood lipids, and a reduction in the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel rather than carbohydrate.
Obviously people on bed rest get less activity than those who have sedentary jobs, but the activity level for most people isn’t that much greater than those who are confined to a hospital bed.
Here’s the kicker – the negative effects of inactivity occur even when calories are controlled. Metabolism gets worse even if people eat fewer calories to compensate for the reduced activity.[iii]
Extended periods of sitting cause a change in metabolism, where fatty acids are shifted away from muscle and toward fat tissue. Since fatty acids become less available to muscles, muscle tissue relies more on carbohydrates. At the same time, since the fatty acids aren’t burned for fuel, their levels can rise in the blood.
Maintaining blood sugar levels becomes more important with muscles increased use of it for fuel, which may stimulate cravings for carbohydrates. Since muscles burn less fat, the concentration of mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells, may reduce as well. With fewer mitochondria, there will be even less ability to burn fat for fuel.
As muscles get smaller, they have less space to store carbohydrates. The excess carbohydrate increases production of insulin and raises triglyceride levels. Elevated insulin increases fat storage.
Bed rest studies show that inactivity not only increases subcutaneous body fat levels, but it also increases storage of fat in muscle tissue and bone marrow.[iv]
Just one day of sitting has been shown to decrease insulin sensitivity muscle tissue, in otherwise healthy individuals.[v] These changes occurred whether they consumed calories in excess of, or to match their reduced activity level.
Employee Wellness Programs
No employer would intentionally expose employees to harm. It’s unheard of today to allow smoking inside a workplace, as the second-hand smoke can be as bad for non-smokers as smoking is for smokers.
It would be silly to give out free soda, candy and other junk food (although this does happen in some workplaces).
In the same way, employers should find ways to encourage employees to get up off their feet as much possible throughout the day. A corporate culture of sitting in meetings most of the day, or expecting employees sit at their desks, can lead to health problems like those associated with poor diet and lifestyle choices.
Extended period of sitting has the potential for increasing triglyceride levels, and reducing insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.[vi] Body fat levels tend to rise with extended sitting as well.
Sedentary activity is associated with an increased risk of obesity, cholesterol and triglyceride problems, metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes and high blood pressure.
What health problems are of greatest concern to most corporations? Obesity, elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Extended periods of sitting increase morbidity and mortality risks, even in those who exercise for an hour a day.[vii]
Exercise is important. It helps build lean body mass and often helps lower stress levels. But, the negative impact of sitting throughout the day affects exercisers and non-exercisers almost equally.
Evidence suggests that an hour of exercise each day cannot offset the negative effects of sitting the rest of the day.[viii] In fact, some evidence suggests that people who exercise may end up sitting more the rest of the day, and end up with similar time spent being sedentary as those who don’t exercise at all.[ix]
There’s no doubt that employers should encourage their employees to exercise and participate in athletic events. However, exercise time and athletic events account for a fraction of people’s days.
To have the greatest impact on health, employees need to be reminded to move more throughout the work day.
The Benefits of a Standing Desk
One of the main reasons sitting disrupts metabolism is the prolonged “unloading” of muscle, especially the legs. When sitting, the leg muscles don’t contract, which suppresses an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. This negatively impacts fat and carbohydrate metabolism.[x]
The lack of muscle contraction also affects blood and lymph flow. It is a big reason why you have deep marks on your legs when you take your socks off at night.
Obviously a lack of muscle contraction can reduce muscle size and strength over time as well.
By just standing at your desk, rather than sitting, your leg muscles stay moderately contracted. You also tend to shift your weight back and forth as you stand, which helps with blood flow as well.
You don’t burn a significant number of calories compared to sitting, but the act of standing helps to avoid many of the metabolic changes mentioned above.
What is the ideal amount of standing? Is it 30 minutes out of each hour? Is it the whole day? Could there be a minimal amount of just 5-10 minutes per hour to offset the negative effects of sitting? More research needs to be done here.
My suggestion is to stand as much as possible rather than sitting. If you sit all day today, start with small period of time so your feet, hips, knees and back get accustom to it.
It’s also important to set up your workstation so you’re not hunched over, looking at a screen well below your shoulders, or reaching for your keyboard.
The Benefits of Walking (and Walking Meetings)
Walking requires more energy than standing, so it provides some additional health benefits beyond standing still.
Much of the research on walking focuses on step targets. For example, one study showed that achieving 10,000 steps or more each day helped in lowering blood pressure, improving exercise capacity and reducing sympathetic stimulation in patients with high blood pressure.[xi]
The sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight part. With chronic stress, the sympathetic system is chronically activated, which can increase blood pressure, but also stimulates cortisol production.
10,000 steps seems to be an ideal target for reducing many of the problems associated with sedentarism.
Most of these 10,000 steps should be outside of exercise sessions. If you’re a runner, you can’t expect to get the benefits by getting the 10,000 steps in an hour-long run and sitting the rest of the day.
Americans get about 6500 steps each day.[xii] Imagine how much better the health could be for employee groups who are encouraged to get their extra 3500 steps every day at work?
Walking can help lower this stress response. This might be especially effective if you have a heavy conversation you need to work through for a meeting. Take that topic on the road. Walk and talk. It’ll be better for your health, as well as your co-worker’s health.
What does all this mean in a practical sense?
One study found that office workers, working 50 weeks per year, 8 hours per day, five days a week would burn an extra 33,000 calories per year by standing up and walking for five minutes each hour of work. Now, there’s a LOT more to weight management than calories in, calories out, but if it were that simple, that 33,000 calories would be 9.4 pounds of body fat.[xiii]
If you work in a culture that sits a lot, see what you can do to stand more. Personally, I set my laptop on a stack of textbooks for a long time. More recently, I got a VariDesk, which is inexpensive and sits right on my desktop. No construction necessary.
I also can’t recommend enough the importance of an activity monitor. I was shocked when I got my first Fitbit and realized that I was no better off than the average American.
Including my workouts, I averaged 6000 steps per day when I first started tracking! As you can imagine, this awareness changed my behavior big-time.
From a corporate wellness standpoint, I don’t know that there could be a better investment than an activity monitor like the Fitbit or Garmin Vivofit. Beyond corporate wellness, I think every adult should carry one of these for at least a few months. Once you get in the habit of moving more, you might not need them as often.
If you’re an individual who sits a lot during the week, take responsibility to find a way to move more.
As a health and fitness company, we are obviously big believers in the importance of exercise and nutrition. We also understand that, unless you’re a serious athlete, exercise accounts for 3-6 hours of a 168-hour week. Nutrition choices are super-important as well.
But if you spend the majority of your non-exercising, non-sleeping time, sitting at a desk, sitting in a car, or sitting on the couch, you’ll be a lot more likely to spend more of your life sitting in a hospital bed.
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[iv] Trudel G, Payne M, Madler B, Ramachandran N, Lecompte M, et al. Bone marrow fat accumulation after 60 days of bed rest persisted 1 year after activities were resumed along with hemopoietic stimulation: The Women International Space Simulation for Exploration study. J Appl Physiol. 2009;107:540-548
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[vii] Prince SA, Gresty KM, Reed JL, Wright E, Tremblay MS, Reid RD. Individual, social and physical environmental correlates of sedentary behaviors in adults: a systematic review protocol. Systematic Reviews. 2014;3:120
[viii] Duvivier BMFM, Schaper NC, Bremers MA, van Crombrugge G, Menheere RPCA, et al. Minimal Intensity Physical Activity (Standing and Walking) of Longer Duration Improves Insulin Action and Plasma Lipids More than Shorter Periods of Moderate to Vigorous Exercise (Cycling) in Sedentary Subjects When Energy Expenditure is Comparable. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(2):e55542 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055542
[ix] Northwestern University. Exercise Doesn’t Impact Amount Of Time Women Spend Sitting. Medical News Today. 2012, November 2. Retrieved from
[x] Bey L, Hamilton MT. Suppression of skeletal muscle lipoprotein lipase activity during physical inactivity: a molecular reason to maintain daily low-intensity activity. J Physiol. 2003;551(Pt 2):673-682.
[xi] Iwane M, Arita M, Tomimoto S, Satani O, Matsumoto M, Miyashita K, Nishio I. Walking 10,000 steps/day or more reduces blood pressure and sympathetic nerve activity in mild essential hypertension. Hypertens Res. 2000;23(6):573-580
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