Are You Sitting Comfortably… For FAR Too Long?

‘The only exercise some people get is jumping to conclusions, running down their friends, side-stepping responsibility, and pushing their luck!’ ~ Unknown The finger of blame for the chronic disease pandemic spreading to industrialized populations across the world is often pointed at the western diet. But mounting evidence points to declining activity levels as equally detrimental to health, and as one of the key underlying causes. Inactivity and prolonged sitting have been the subject of various studies, presumably because the last two generations are the first in mankind’s long history where large proportions of the population spend most of their waking hours on their posteriors.

How many hours per day do you spend sitting down? Do you even know?

If you live the average western lifestyle then after getting up and sitting down to have breakfast you will sit in your car on your way to your office job, spend 8 or 9 hours largely sitting down at work, before return home sitting in your car, then spend the evening sitting on the couch or at a desk in front of a screen. Children too are spending more time than ever sitting down and less time on activities that involve physical movement. Some estimates suggest an average western child spends at least 60% of their waking hours sedentary. This is a relatively new area of research, but emerging evidence suggests that it is not just inactivity that is the problem; sitting creates health issues of its own.

Sedentary lifestyles

A ‘sedentary lifestyle’ is one with no (or very irregular) physical activity.  It’s the type of ‘couch potato’ lifestyle that may be the butt of jokes but can actually lead to serious health repercussions.

So what is typical?

In the USA between 1950 and 2000, the percentage of people working in low-activity occupations rose from about 23 percent to 41 percent. Driving cars increased from 67 percent of all trips to work in 1960 to 88 percent in 2000, while walking and taking public transit to work decreased.    About 40 percent of U.S. schoolchildren walked or rode their bikes to school in 1969; by 2001, only 13 percent did so. Physical activity in the U.S. fell by almost a third between 1965 and 2009, and sedentary behavior increased by over forty percent in the same period and is increasing. An article in the Harvard Men’s Health Watch noted over a decade ago: ‘As recently as the nineteenth century, thirty percent of all the energy used in the American workplace was provided by human muscle power; today, the percentage is minuscule.’ Sitting has replaced standing in many professions and replaced more active pursuits in our personal lives. “An average working person in an industrialized nation spends up to 15.5 hours of each day sitting down.” In the case of children, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in the US says: Only 25 percent of students in grades nine through twelve engaged in moderate physical activity for at least thirty minutes on five or more of the previous seven days in 2003. Only 28 percent of students in grades nine through twelve participated in daily school physical education in 2003, down from 42 percent in 1991. These numbers have deteriorated in the years since, with less than ten percent of American high schools now offering a daily physical education class.

The British Heart Foundation’s report on physical activity levels in the UK in 2012 found that:

56 percent of women in England did not spend any time in sports and exercise in 2008 The average distance traveled on foot or by bike by each person per year has decreased from 306 miles in 1975/76 to 221 miles in 2010 Many of the same trends in sedentary behavior we see in the U.S. are mirrored in the UK and it is very likely that these same trends extend to all industrialized populations around the globe.

Prolonged sitting and vascular function in children

Despite the suspicion that excessive sedentary behavior has serious health consequences, the precise changes in the body it causes are not well understood – particularly in the case of children. A recently-published Canadian study examined the impact of prolonged sitting on the heart health of young girls. The study examined the acute effect a prolonged period of sitting (3 hours) upon superficial femoral artery function in 7-10 year old girls and the impact of interrupting prolonged sitting with exercise breaks of 10 minutes per 3 hours. A 3-hour period of uninterrupted sitting was found to cause “a profound (33%) reduction in vascular function in the young girls”; furthermore, breaking up sitting with regular exercise breaks was found to prevent this. This clearly demonstrates the importance of children getting enough activity in their daily lives.

Not just an isolated study…

While few previous studies have been conducted on children, prior research on inactivity and the ‘biology of sitting’ in adults supports the findings of the above study. A British study as far back as the 1950s demonstrated that sedentary bus drivers had higher incidences of cardiovascular disease than their standing bus conductor counterparts.

Since then, sitting has been associated with chronic disease in several clinical studies.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine reported in 2010 that sitting causes adverse molecular and physiological responses in the body that are not rectified by exercise and that medical advice should ‘encourage people to maintain their intermittent levels of daily activities’. A report from 2008 said that the act of sitting presents ‘unique mechanisms that are distinct from the biologic bases of exercising’ and that ‘it is time to consider excessive sitting a serious health hazard.’ The Canadian Fitness Survey in 2009 concluded that physical activity does not eliminate all the ill effects of too much sitting. The whole body muscular movement we get when standing up or moving is vital to our health; sitting deprives the body of this, producing biological responses that promote cardiovascular and metabolic problems related to heart disease, obesity, diabetes and some cancers.

Inactivity and disease

Inactivity (as opposed to sitting, specifically) has also been connected in multiple clinical studies with many of the main risk factors involved in heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. In fact it is estimated to be the main cause for approximately 21–25% of breast and colon cancers, 27% of diabetes and approximately 30% of ischemic heart disease.  

Other clinical studies have shown that:

  • Time spent sitting down is ‘positively associated with mortality’
  • Physical activity greatly reduces the risk of heart disease
  • Even short-term inactivity may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases
  • Regular physical activity reduces the risk of CVD and diabetes
  •  Ownership of a car and a television is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks
  • Prolonged TV viewing is associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes and CVD
  • Inactivity reduces insulin action and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day prevents type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity is a determinant of an inactive lifestyle and leads to serious chronic conditions

It should be clear from the above that attitudes towards our lifestyles must change. Physical activity is no longer an ‘in-built’ part of our lifestyles and we need to find ways to reverse that trend.

It might be simply using standing desks instead of sitting desks, reminders to get up and take a walk around every hour, or an exercise regimen; but something must be done to break up the long bouts of sitting that people regularly force their bodies to endure.

Physical activity plays just as an important role as diet in maintaining health and protecting us from chronic disease.

To learn more about how we can help you get moving again even if you’ve been suffering with chronic pain, please visit to learn more about our health transforming comprehensive wellness program or call 215-546-1010 today.


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