June 2nd is National Health and Fitness Day. Since this is a Saturday it shouldn’t be too hard to add some physical activity and healthy eating to your weekend. Some of us may use this as an opportunity to make up for the lack of physical activity during the week from desk jobs and/or lengthy commutes. Unfortunately, the research shows that regular physical activity does not negate long periods of sitting.
One paper analyzed 47 different studies to determine the association of sitting with various health problems. They found that long periods of sitting increase the risk of premature death, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer (1). Regular exercise may help decrease the risk of these diseases but may not eliminate them entirely. For example, 60 minutes of moderately intense exercise decreases risk of premature death but does not undo the negative effects of sitting on insulin or blood fats (2).
New research has looked at what happens to our brain when we are sedentary for long periods of time. MRIs show that sedentary behavior reduces the thickness of the medial temporal lobe (MTL) in middle age individuals (3). The MTL is a critical memory center for the brain. Surprisingly, incorporating regular physical activity did not change this outcome. Although these are interesting results, it is a preliminary study and more research is needed. They explain that these findings do not prove that too much sitting undermines brain health only that more sitting is linked to a thinner brain structure.
A sedentary lifestyle can affect many aspects of our body and brain. Some of us have no choice but to endure hours of sitting. Here are some tips on how to reduce your sitting time:
At work, stand for a few minutes every half-hour, perhaps during phone calls, coffee breaks or meetings.
If possible, use a desk that lets you work both standing and seated
In the car, park as far away as possible from the door so you'll be able to walk more. Stand if you ride the bus or sky train.
At home, get up regularly from your computer. Try standing and doing chores while watching TV.
When taking breaks from sitting do something that promotes mental stimulation. For example, do a crossword puzzle or read a book instead of browsing your phone or watching TV.
Now that you are aware of the detriments of sitting, try and incorporate as much physical and mental activity into your daily routine. National Health and Fitness Day is the perfect time to start!
Biswas A, et al. Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2015;162:123–132.
Bernard M, 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;9(8): e105135.
Burggren, P et al. Sedentary behavior associated with reduced medial temporal lobe thickness in middle-aged and older adults. PLOS ONE. 2018;13(4): e0195549.