Stand up for your health

As we lead more sedentary lives, it's important to combat the effects of too much sitting. Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

Fortunately, you can lower your risk of these conditions simply by standing and moving more— even if you already exercise. That's because routine movement during the day adds on to those benefits.

The risks of sedentary lifestyles

In an American Cancer Society study of 123,000 middle-aged adults, researchers found that women who sat the most had a 34% greater risk of dying from any cause over the 14 years of the study compared with those who sat the least. For men, the increase was 17%.

When exercise was factored in, the difference was even starker. The most sedentary women, who neither moved nor exercised a lot, were almost twice as likely to die during the study period as those who moved and exercised the most. The most sedentary men were 50% more likely to die than their more active counterparts.

Similarly, other studies have concluded that routine, everyday movement has benefits, whether for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or weight loss. The importance of movement for health is so well-established that some doctors advise their patients to use sitting "in moderation."

Sitting and your health

Why does prolonged sitting have such harmful health consequences? One explanation is that it relaxes your largest muscles. When muscles relax, they take up very little sugar (glucose) from the blood, raising your risk of type 2 diabetes.

In addition, the enzymes that break down blood fats (triglycerides) plummet, causing levels of the "good" cholesterol, HDL, to fall, too. The result is a higher risk of heart disease.

Benefits of everyday movement

By contrast, everyday movement not only reduces your risk of major ailments, but also helps burn more calories. Dr. James Levine at the Mayo Clinic coined the term "non-exercise activity thermogenesis," or NEAT, to refer to the energy you burn through ordinary activities that you don't think of as exercise. These are activities such as fidgeting, carrying the laundry upstairs, dancing around the house to your favorite tune, or even standing while you talk on the phone. 

© Harvard Medical School