Sitting too much now considered a factor in many diseases, researchers say

You might want to stand up for this news: Sitting too much at work and during your drive home is bad for your health, as bad as not exercising.

“We’re basically killing ourselves by the way we’re sitting,” says Jheri Bellard, a fitness specialist for Baton Rouge General. “We’re becoming part of our furniture.”

The average American sits for 70 hours a week, says Marc Hamilton, a professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center who is a leading researcher on the effects of inactivity on the body. He and other researchers are connecting sitting with heart disease and diabetes.

“No matter what country you live in, you probably spend most of your day sitting,” Hamilton says, adding that sitting is a factor in “all these diseases that seem to be the scourge of modern society. Things that weren’t a big deal 100 years ago that are a big deal now.”

And, Hamilton says, exercise will not counteract all that chair time.

“Sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little,” Hamilton says. “They are very different behaviors.”

When we are inactive, some bad molecular processes in our muscles turn on, and many good ones turn off, Hamilton said. Our ability to burn calories inside of special types of muscles needed for moving around plunges immediately, and an enzyme that removes fat molecules from the blood — what Hamilton explains is like “the vacuum for bad fat in the bloodstream” — gets turned off.

Eating right and exercising 30 minutes or an hour everyday will not prevent the negative consequences of sitting at work, driving home and hitting the couch for a couple of hours of TV time every night, Hamilton says.

“So to think that you can go out and work out for an hour or two or three each week is going to mop up this mess is very implausible,” he says.

The solution isn’t to run in place at your desk or do push-ups between business calls.

“If it looks like exercise, it ain’t gonna work,” Hamilton says.

Those who have sedentary workdays need to replace more sitting hours with low-intensity activity, he said.

“Realize that all these little activities in your life right now, they add up to hours,” Hamilton says. “They really do matter.”

An hour spent cooking dinner shouldn’t be seen as a waste, he says. That’s one hour away from the couch. Just walking around, picking up around the house helps.

At Pennington, Hamilton and other researchers are working to find out how much activity is needed each day to slow the negative effects of sitting. Soon Hamilton expects to be able to set a “dosage” — a certain amount of activity for every few minutes of sitting.

For now, fitness professionals like Bellard encourage those with sedentary workdays to “make up creative ways to get more movement out of their lives.”

“Our bodies were meant to move 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day, and that is outside of (working out),” Bellard says.

When his research began receiving attention outside of the scientific world, Hamilton and his team started saying “sitting is the new smoking.” He doesn’t mean that sitting causes the same health problems as puffing on cigarettes. Instead, Hamilton sees sitting as a danger to health that has been overlooked — like secondhand smoke was until the 1980s.

Hamilton is hopeful that more research will lead to a change in culture.

“The public wants to feel good,” he says. “They’re tired of living a lifestyle of no energy, of high risk for diseases.”