Beware the chair

Study after study has highlighted the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle that includes extended periods of sitting, and the catchphrase “sitting is the new smoking” has gained traction in the media and in popular consciousness. We asked U of T’s Greg Wells how bad sitting really is. Wells is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at U of T and an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children. His research is focused on developing new ways of treating disease using exercise and nutrition.

Jenny Hall: We’ve been hearing a lot in the media lately about the health threats of sitting too much. Is sitting actually that bad? Is it really “the new smoking” as we keep hearing?

Greg Wells: The physical inactivity epidemic is causing all sorts of health problems. It is associated with almost every chronic disease on the planet, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The World Health Organization has stated that physical inactivity is one of the leading health concerns for the planet, and that it is closely associated with increased rates of non-communicable diseases. Non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of death on every continent except Africa. If it’s not the world’s number one health concern, it’s pretty close.

JH: Is there any research on how much sitting is too much?

GW: We know a couple things for sure. First, humans need to be vigorously active for at least an hour a day. A very small percentage of our society achieves that. Vigorous activity is something above and beyond just walking. Your heart rate is needs to be elevated, and you need to be engaged in something that’s physically demanding for you. An hour of fast walking is an example of vigorous activity.

The other thing we know is that the more physical activity we can incorporate throughout the day, the better. This is because sitting is an independent risk factor. The more you sit, the worse your health is going to be. So in addition to getting the one hour of vigorous physical activity, the more you can intersperse physical activities like walking or moving or getting up to move around throughout the day, the healthier you are going to be.

JH: When you say sitting is an independent risk factor, does that mean that even if you get the hour of vigorous activity a day, you’re still at risk?

GW: Yes. Consider an office worker who’s going to the gym religiously for an hour a day. That’s great. They’ll be way better off than if they never did it at all. The message isn’t don’t do that one hour of exercise—it’s incredibly beneficial. We know that vigorous exercise decreases your risk of breast and colon cancer by up to 50 per cent. But sitting all day is still a problem in and of itself that needs to be addressed.

JH: Are there any guidelines for the other kind of activity you talked about—the kind we should try to be interspersing throughout the day?

GW: The best idea is to try to add short bouts of activity throughout the day. I use the 20/20 rule. For every 20 minutes of sitting, stand up and stretch for 20 seconds. Beyond that, within every two-hour block, try to find 15 minutes to do some activity, be it walking or stairs. Even just standing for a while is better than sitting down.

I tell people to stand up in meetings. If everyone else is sitting, find a spot to stand up in the back. If you’re doing a phone call, get up and do it with headphones while you’re standing.

Fifteen minutes of activity every two hours is a tall order if you’re in an office environment.

It is—until you begin to consider the significant damage that sitting causes. The other thing we have learned that’s emerging is the powerful benefit of physical activity for cognitive performance. We now know that physical activity and exercise activate the areas of the brain associated with memory, learning, problem solving and concentration. So an office worker might think they don’t have time to stretch and move, but I would say to them, you can’t afford not to. Not only is your health going to improve, but your performance is going to dramatically improve as well.

JH: So there’s case to be made the physical activity is good for your brain, too?

GW: Absolutely. I watched a documentary on Bob Marley recently. He has a reputation of being this pot smoking guy, but he was a relentless perfectionist. He didn’t let the Wailers play live until they’d practiced for two years. Before they went into recording sessions, he would make everyone play soccer on the beach. They would never go in to play unless they had been exercising beforehand. Or, if you read Steve Jobs’s biography, he never did meetings sitting down. His big creative meetings were always done walking.

I think there’s a real sound physiology to these stories, and good rationale for incorporating physical activity into your day. You’re changing the way your brain works. You’re actually flooding the area of the brain that you’re using with oxygen and nutrients. It’s like flipping a switch. The fact that we try to do creative mental work sitting down goes against the way the body and brain are meant to work.

JH: What actually happens in your body when you sit for extended periods of time?

The main thing is decreased blood flow. When you move, you push fluid through all of the tissues in the body. That is one of the main ways the body fights off illness, by pushing fluids through what is called the lymphatic system. You actually have two full circulatory systems in your body—most people don’t know that. You have your blood system that everyone’s aware of, but you also have the lymphatic system. Fluids moving through the lymphatic system are how the body catches viruses and bacteria and other invaders and filters them out and kills them. So the primary way to stay healthy is to get up and move. Beyond decreased circulation, you also get decreased flexibility and decreased nutrients supplied to muscles and the brain.

JH: It sounds like stagnation.

GW: It’s absolutely stagnation. Think about a fresh flowing stream versus water that sits. Sitting water becomes stagnant with low oxygen, and viruses and bacteria grow in it. There’s a similar effect inside the human body.

There do seem to be some parallels to smoking here if you think about sitting as a public health problem. A huge public health push—and some high profile lawsuits—in the latter part of the twentieth century changed cultural ideas about smoking. Does something similar need to happen with sitting?

We need intervention and education at every single level. We need to get physical education back in schools and to make sure that communities are built with sidewalks and parks. We need to make sure that cities get built so that people can ride their bikes. We now know enough that people should know better. I think it’s possible that employers could be held accountable in the future for not providing the opportunity for employees to be as healthy as they could be, given what we now know. We need a tremendous push on education about the benefits of physical activity and the risks of inactivity.

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Marketing women’s fantasies

Eleanor Ty | February 8, 2016

Eleanor Ty is a professor in Wilfrid Laurier University's English and film studies department.  Ty offers Research Matters her take on Jane Austen and the endurance of romance literature, particularly romances that reach back in time. In “The 39 Steps to Being A Gentleman,” Rupert Uloth includes the following: #30 Has read Pride and Prejudice.  However tongue-in-cheek the list is (ex. # 34. Sandals? No. Never), that Austen’s novel is the only book mentioned suggests its importance in our cultural repertoire. Scholars have written many critical interpretations of Austen’s novels, but in popular culture, she is best known for romance and love.  Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, about a thirty something single woman living in London looking for Mr. Right, is based on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  Costume dramas of Pride and Prejudice, most recently the BBC TV series by Andrew Davies featuring Colin Firth (1995) and Joe Wright’s 2005 film with Keira Knightley emphasize falling in love rather than politics, philosophy, or morals. Austen would have been disturbed to find that Pride and Prejudice (1813) has become the prototype for today’s mass marketed romances, but the novel does highlight two of the most often used tropes of contemporary romances: the Cinderella rags-to-riches story, and the taming of the beast by a beautiful woman. While women have made great strides in the last 200 years, it's fascinating how our fantasies have not. Judging by the sales of adult romances, which in 2013 had an annual total sales value of $1.08 billion, love, the search for true love and reading about love are alive and selling very well. In 2014, romance novels constituted 13 per cent of the share of adult fiction in hard and paper books, but a whopping 39 per cent of ebooks. The formula has changed and yet not changed since the days of the queen of Regency Romance, Georgette Heyer. Heyer’s romances, inspired by Austen, featured protagonists from the upper class: men were strong, authoritative, powerful and older than the young, beautiful, and innocent heroines. The romances attempted to give historically accurate depictions of the period’s social activities, such as dinners, plays, assemblies, carriage rides, fencing, hunting, riding, and boxing.  Often, they featured marriages of convenience and mistaken identities, but tended to be comedies of manners. Changing time and place Today’s historical romances are still set in England before the 1950s, but also in the Medieval period, in colonial American, the American West, and in Scotland.  Settings, clothes, weapons, cooking and travelling methods are historical, but attitudes tend to be contemporary.  As publishers realize readers' changing preferences, historical romances have become more explicitly sexual, and reflect more independent and strong-willed heroines, albeit anachronistically. Love and ultimately heterosexual marriage are still the end goals, but the verbal and physical interaction between the couple, and the means to get to the happily-ever-after end distinguish one romance and one author from another. One way present-day authors rewrite the stereotype of the helpless heroine is by making them proficient at wielding weapons. K.J. Jackson’s Stone Devil Duke begins with the heroine disguised as a hack coach driver who coerces the hero into helping her shoot and kill four thugs. In Glynnis Campbell’s Captive Heart, a warrior maid who is trained as a swordswoman kidnaps a lord in order to prevent her sister’s unwanted marriage.  Both of these women are initially not interested in courtship and marriage but rather wish to protect their family or clan. Other authors deal with contemporary women’s issues such as the after effects of violence and rape. Claire Delacroix’s Frost Maiden’s Kiss features a pregnant heroine who has been raped by an army of mercenaries in Medieval Scotland while Barbara Ankrum’s hero in Holt’s Gamble rescues the heroine from an abusive relationship with her saloon master in 19th century colonial America. In both these romances, the handsome hero has to care for a psychologically-wounded woman, reversing the nurse romances of the 1960s and 70s. A favourite plotline of historical romance today is the time travelling story popularized by Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, about a nurse from the Second World War who is mysteriously transported to the Highlands of 1743. How she and her Scottish husband fight the ruling English soldiers at Culloden has been adapted into a TV series nominated for a Golden Globe recently. Similarly, Tanya Anne Crosby’s heroine who is studying Archeology and Anthropology is searching for the Stone of Destiny and instead finds herself falling for a half-naked Pict in the 9th century. These time travelling women happily forego flushed toilets and penicillin to live with their Medieval or 18th century kilted heroes.  Ah, true love!

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Sharon Oosthoek | February 4, 2016

Starting around the mid 1900s, Canada's northern and Arctic areas have seen some of the largest temperature increases in the world — up to 4 C in some cases. As climate change turns up the heat in the North, Indigenous populations, particularly Inuit, are grappling with significant health effects, says the University of Guelph's Sherilee Harper, an eco-health researcher who works with Indigenous communities. "A one degree temperature change can mean the difference between stable and unstable ice," says Harper. "That's important for people's ability to hunt for food, which affects their physical and mental health." Harper says while the consequences are significant, her research suggests communities have a built-in resilience that is too often ignored. "Climate change will have an impact everywhere," says Harper. "It's already affecting the North and we can learn a lot from Inuit wisdom as they adapt. Their ingenuity is amazing." Location, location, location Most Inuit communities in the Arctic are located along the coast on small, rocky outcrops of land surrounded by vast amounts of water. In the summer, people use boats as their main source of transportation. In the winter, when the water turns to ice it forms a highway that links often road-less communities together, while also shaping new hunting grounds. But the “in-between time” can be dangerous travelling. That's when water is a slushy combination of solid and liquid, and people can't trust its stability. Rising temperatures in the North mean these conditions are more common than ever before. Forced to stay put, Inuit are physically inactive and have less access to food, says Harper.  Grocery stores — where a turkey no bigger than a soccer ball can cost more than $200 — are few and far between. Those who do venture out when the ice is unstable do so at their own risk. The possibility of drowning or injury not only affects their own physical and mental health, but the mental health of those left at home to worry over their loved one's safety, says Harper. "There have always been safety concerns, " she says. "But in the last 20 years, changes in temperature have been bigger and more difficult to predict." Word of mouth In an effort to deal with this uncertainty, some Inuit communities have begun posting online photos and videos of unsafe parts of established routes. "They are building on their oral culture and increasing the availability of information," says Harper.  In fact, oral traditions that highlight information-sharing are a crucial part of climate change adaptation in the North, says Harper. That became clear while her team searched for solutions to repetitive problems that were identified during a study she conducted with Inuit in Nunatsiavut, Labrador. The team found heavy rainfall and snowmelt — a more common occurrence as temperatures rise — are followed by significant increases in visits to the local clinic for diarrhea. The connection is fairly simple, says Harper: "Heavy rainfall and snowmelt washes E. coli and other bacteria into the water. If people drink brook water after it rains, it can make them sick." The answer, developed by local high school students, was also simple: radio ads warning people not to drink brook water after heavy rain or snowmelt. While people in the community follow a longstanding tradition of drinking fresh brook water, students urged them to temporarily turn to treated tap water. "Inuit are natural adaptors," says Harper. "Sure climate change is a huge challenge, but they are resilient."

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Sharon Oosthoek | February 1, 2016

In February 2008, Derek Mueller flew over the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf off the coast of Canada's Ellesmere Island, warily eyeing the enormous cracks along its edge. The Carleton University researcher studies the impact of climate change in frozen parts of the world and was visiting the area's ice shelves to gather data about the changes he and his team had observed via satellite. "When we saw the cracks, we thought, 'Wow, those are really big. It's a sign of things to come,'" recalls Mueller. read more »
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Araina Bond | January 25, 2016

At the age of 85, Henry Becker still enjoys playing the violin and his ability to hear the nuances of the music is partly thanks to his daughter’s research. Sue Becker, along with colleagues from McMaster University's Intelligent Hearing Aid Group, has developed a technology that completely changes the way hearing aids interact with our ears and brains. It is a project spanning 15 years and several disciplines, with contributors from the university's departments of psychology, and computer and electrical engineering. read more »
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Jessica Shapiro | January 19, 2016

People have been preserving food for centuries — from flash-freezing fish in Inuit villages to pickling vegetables on the farm. But we have yet to come up with a surefire way to keep preserved food safe for human consumption. Every year, about four million Canadians suffer from food-borne illnesses such as E. coli and Salmonella. As recently as 2008, an outbreak of the listeria bacteria in some packaged Maple Leaf meat products led to 57 confirmed and 23 suspected deaths. read more »
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