Why doctors are now warning that sitting is the new smoking
- Mirror 16th Apr 2014 00:00:00 GMT +0300
Are you sitting comfortably? You might not be by the time you finish reading this, because spending too much time perched on your posterior could be seriously damaging your health.
The average Brit now spends a staggering 8.9 hours every day sitting down. That might be at work, in a car or on the sofa in front of the TV.
Add another seven hours sleeping and that means most of us spend just one third of our time on our feet.
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Those prolonged periods of inactivity increase our risk of obesity, but they also cause a staggering list of other conditions. This includes heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, muscular and back issues, deep vein thrombosis, brittle bones, depression and even dementia.
Experts are now describing sitting as ‘the new smoking’, a ticking time bomb of ill health just waiting to explode. The World Health Organization has already identified physical inactivity as the fourth biggest killer on the planet, ahead of obesity. It now costs the UK economy more than Kenya Shillings 145 billion every year in sick days due to back, neck and muscle problems and that figure is still rising.
A new campaign, Get Britain Standing, aims to get the nation back on its feet and help turn back the rising tide of ill health that is caused by spending too much time sitting down.
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Gavin Bradley, director of Get Britain Standing, says: “It’s like smoking during the 1970s and passive smoking during the 90s. We all know a sedentary lifestyle is bad for us, we just don’t realize how bad it is. Spending less time sitting down really can add years to your life. That is the most important message.
“Unfortunately, it also seems to be the hardest one for people to believe.’’
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The World Health Organization recommends an adult should do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, or 30 minutes on at least five days. That is enough to gain the main benefits of regular exercise. However, it won’t protect you from the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle if you spend too much time sitting.
A report by the Government’s Chief Medical Officer warns there is mounting evidence that you can hit the recommended levels of exercise but still put your health at risk by spending the rest of the time sitting down.
Dr John Buckley, an expert in exercise science at Chester University, says: “A person may have got more than 30 minutes’ exercise by cycling to work and home again, but if they have been sitting still all day they will lose some of those benefits. It is like exercising but then eating an unhealthy diet or exercising and being a smoker. Physical inactivity is equally as important as those other well-known issues like diet and smoking.”
What happens to your body when you’re sitting down?
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Sitting for too long slows down the body’s metabolism and the way the enzyme lipoprotein lipase breaks down our fat reserves.
On the other hand, blood glucose levels and blood pressure both increase.
Small amounts of regular activity, even just standing and moving around, throughout the day is enough to bring the increased levels back down. And those small amounts of activity add up – scientists have suggested that 30 minutes of light activity in two or three-minute bursts could be just as effective as a half-hour block of exercise.
But without that activity, blood sugar levels and blood pressure keep creeping up, steadily damaging the inside of the arteries and raising the risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Dr Buckley says getting people more active so they spend less time sitting down is the single biggest step we can take towards cutting the risk of developing those deadly diseases.
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“The human race didn’t evolve to spend so much time sitting down,” he says. “Up until relatively recently we spent much of our time moving around.”
What’s the evidence?
A study of bus drivers and conductors carried out by Transport for London
In the 1950s provides stark evidence of the dangers of spending too much time sitting down. It found that drivers, who spend more of their time sitting, were 1.5 times as likely to develop heart disease as conductors, who stood more often.
That evidence has convinced the British Heart Foundation that physical inactivity is an issue that needs to be tackled, particularly as heart disease remains the biggest killer in the UK, claiming 160,000 lives per year.
Dr Mike Napton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, says getting people on their feet is a key priority for the charity, as many patients report simply feeling better when they are more active.
It can prevent and alleviate back problems, which are commonly caused by spending too much time sitting or sitting with poor posture.
As well as the physical benefits there are less-tangible rewards. Many people notice their mood improves, they can think more clearly and they have a general sense of well-being. “If you could put that in a bottle people would pay a lot of money for it,” says Dr Napton. “If you want to put that into activity levels, it would be the equivalent of running about 10 marathons a year, just by standing up three or four hours in your day at work.’’
Taking a stand at work
The benefits of standing instead of spending so much time sitting are finally starting to catch on. Just last month, Victoria Beckham was photographed walking while working after swapping her office chair for a treadmill desk.
Such luxuries are not for everyone. A treadmill desk typically costs between Kenya shillings 217,500 and 435,000 and is not suitable for all office workers. Adjustable sit-stand desks that allow workers to alter the height and work while sitting down or standing up offer a more practical solution.
Standing desks are already much more common in Scandinavia, where staff have the right to work standing up. In this country, they are usually seen as treatment tools for patients who already suffer from back problems, rather than a way to prevent issues in later life.
Get Britain Standing aims to change that. Bradley has a vision that within 20 years more than 20% of the workforce – one in five staff – will spend more of their day working at a standing desk.
Not only would that make them happier and healthier, it would make them more productive, too. Bradley hopes that will convince more bosses to support the scheme and provide sit-stand desks for staff.
“Winston Churchill used to stand at his desk,’’ says Bradley. “That’s not a bad example to follow. We are more positive, more alert and more task-driven when we are standing.
“We want to reach the stage where it is seen as irresponsible not to offer your staff a standing work station, not just from a health and safety perspective, but from a management and productivity perspective.
“After all, it’s only in the last 40 years or so that computers and televisions have increased the amount of time we spend sitting down.”
Time to make a change
There is still some way to go before the UK follows the Scandanavian lead on workers’ rights to sit and stand. There are currently no firm guidelines for bosses, though the Health and Safety Executive does suggest allowing seated workers to move around every so often to avoid discomfort or long-term health problems.
Convincing firms, schools and families to act will play a vital role in creating a more active lifestyle.
But the benefits of standing apply across all age groups and parents could help their children by limiting the time infants spend restrained in buggies and car seats. The need for exercise remains crucial in later life and pensioners can help keep their bones and muscles strong by standing up and moving around regularly.
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