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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Humanitarian or missionary?

Noreen Fagan | October 27, 2014

Andrea Paras is a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the relationship between religion and humanitarian work. She explores how the religious values of different humanitarian organizations affect their practices, and how Christians in Canadian faith-based organizations distinguish themselves between missionary and development work. “I am trying to question the idea that there is a strict separation between the religious and the secular,” says Paras. “It is something that is taken for granted by Western societies – the assumption that religion should be delegated to the private sphere.” Paras argues that going into a foreign country to deliver relief or assistance has strong historical roots in religious activity, and that religious actors have been involved with development work since it started. However, over the last 50 years the dynamics of humanitarian aid have changed, and so have the requirements for organizations interested in development work. For Canadian faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA) they are required in to separate their development work from their religious mandate. This mandatory adherence to a secular format prompts Paras to question whether religious organizations can separate the two, and if they are really different from any other humanitarian organization. “I don’t think they are that separate,” says Paras. “Organizations buy into the secular fiction, but once they go down that road it can put them in tricky position. If they go too far away from their religious identities then their church-based constituencies start getting worried.” She says ultimately secular and the non-secular agencies may assume different appearances, but in humanitarian work they share a common set of values. “If you look at the values of dignity and humanity that Medecins Sans Frontiere talks about, they are not all that different from the values that would motivate a Christian or a Muslim organization, ” says Paras. She states these values are rooted in western values, which are in turn based on religious beliefs. But, as the Western world’s approach to development changed, the religious tenets gave way to a more humanistic set of values. “As Western society in general became more secular, the [development] organizations that emerged wanted to do the same kind of work, but not for religious reasons,” says Paras. In Canada, this shift from the religious to the secular became more apparent as the amount of humanitarian aid increased. Audiences started to understand the problems associated with development work. Hence, over the last 20 years agencies have steered away from the traditional paternalistic approach to development. The same fear of paternalism extends to faith-based organizations. “They [Canadian audiences] are putting pressure of church-based agencies to stay relevant and to minimize the negative effect of what they are doing,” says Paras. In order to minimize any negativity, religious organizations have become more self-reflexive about their own identities, and more concerned about staying relevant. By staying relevant, Paras means faith-based organizations have to prove they are equitable, non-discriminatory, and that they engage multiple-faith audiences in their work. While non-secular organizations may only be driven by humanistic values, faith-based agencies still have to find a balance between satisfying their church-based constituents and their role in development. They have to position themselves very carefully between secular donors and church-based audiences that might expect certain things of them. Finding the right balance can be tricky. “If they stay too close to their traditional mandates – and this is the case for a number of organizations in Canada that started off as traditional missionary sending agencies – they risk becoming extinct,” says Paras.    

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Araina Bond | October 24, 2014

Georges E. Sioui studies Aboriginal education, culture and religion at the University of Ottawa. Sioui, who is Huron-Wendat, has recently noticed a resurgence of matricentrist values among young people. read more »
Manipulus florum

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Guest blog by Chris Nighman | October 23, 2014

Long before the advent of the Internet, and well before Gutenberg invented moveable type, medieval intellectuals devised information technologies to take advantage of a growing mass of Big Data repositories known as “manuscripts.” read more »

If you’re happy ...

Cathy Majtenyi | October 22, 2014

Brock University recently launched a series of monthly podcasts covering a wide range of themes. As part of our own package of “Belief” related blog posts, Research Matters is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Brock Associate Professor of Psychology, Michael Busseri. Busseri will join two other colleagues to explore this topic in Brock’s January 2015 podcast, “What gives us a sense of wellbeing?” read more »

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Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014

New research by Trent University Oshawa Anthropology professor Roger Lohmann and graduate student Shayne Dahl indicates that cultural learning shapes the kind of awareness and control people can experience while dreaming. “Scouring the ethnographic record on dreaming for hints of lucidity under Professor Lohmann’s guidance, I found something surprising: that lucid dreaming is widely thought to have serious consequences,” said Dahl, who completed his M.A. thesis, “Knowing Means Connecting with the Source of Life: Knowledge and Ethics among Blackfoot Traditionalists” at Trent in 2012. (He is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.) “As one of my Blackfoot informants put it, ‘You could die in your dream.’” Lohmann and Dahl’s findings were published in the 2014 collection, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep. Lucid dreaming – waking consciousness arising during a dream – has been a hot topic of scientific research in recent years. According to Lohmann and Dahl, the common assumption that dreams are products of isolated imaginations has distorted our understanding of lucidity’s variation in form, function, and real-world outcomes. Pop culture portrayals in films such as Avatar and Inception present fantasies where lucid dreaming enables marvelous real-world powers. Many traditional and religious cultural worldviews take the relationship between waking and dream worlds as reality rather than fantasy. Lohmann’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea among the Asabano people explored how they used dreaming as evidence for and contact with supernatural beings. “Asabano converts often told me that seeing dreams of Jesus or Heaven convinced them that what the missionary told them was true,” said Lohmann. “It struck me that they had to believe their dreams were more than figments of their own imaginations to reach that conclusion, and that I, for example, would not be convinced by the same experience because of my different cultural background.” Similarly, Dahl’s fieldwork in Alberta included encounters with Aboriginal medicine men who practiced lucid dreaming. “Shayne’s field experiences and his search of ethnographic literature brought home to us that lucid dreaming has profound potential for people who think it’s more than just a fantasy. We found that descriptions of lucid dreams are radically different in form, function, and outcome depending on the cultural assumptions of the dreamer,” said Lohmann. Their research revealed evidence that in some cultures, lucid dreaming is unknown, while in others it is a commonly taught skill. In some, lucidity is tacit rather than acknowledged, but people nevertheless believe that they actively undertake goals in their dreams. Lohmann and Dahl found that this implicitly lucid “volitional dreaming” commonly appears in ethnographic accounts of dreaming. In cultures where “generative” theory holds sway, dreaming of something is understood to cause it to happen in the waking world. This leads people to experience lucid dreams as opportunities to create or do magic. By contrast, people who believe dreams are what one sees during “soul travel” use lucid dreams as an opportunity to spiritually visit real places. “Even when we consciously disbelieve our dreams,” Dahl said, “They still affect us at a deeper, emotional level that we can’t easily control with reason.” “All of this shows that cultural dream theories are multiple, that people invoke them in complex ways, and that they are at the very core of what lucid dreaming is and what it makes possible,” said Lohmann. This story was originally published by Trent University on, July 15, 2014. Is has been edited for style, brevity and clarity and appears here with permission.
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