Sitting is a period of relative inactivity or rest in which a person is seated with the buttocks and thighs supporting the upper torso, which is basically in an upright position. Although sitting is a normal everyday activity, excessive sitting can be detrimental to maintaining a healthy and fit body, and can be a contributing factor to various medical problems.
Sitting is used daily by humans as a way to rest or to maintain a sedate position while performing various types of work. There are various positions, postures, and general ways used in sitting—such as with parallel aligned legs or cross-legged; on a chair or floor; or sitting with legs down below the waist or raised above—but in each case the result is the same: a person is in a seated position while engaged in rest or some sedentary activity such as reading, watching TV, or listening to music.
All humans sit periodically throughout their daily lives. Some sit more than others. Recently, medical studies have noted the negative impacts to excessively long periods of sitting, increasing the risk of such medical problems as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, increased blood sugar triglyceride levels, obesity, and even some forms of cancer.
Long periods of sitting are becoming more common in today's society as increasing numbers of people have jobs that require more mental activities than physical ones. In addition, much leisure-time activities are centered around recreational sitting, such as watching television or playing video games.
Sitting is commonly performed on the floor with the knees either bent or unbent. An object such as a wall is sometimes used to support the back or the arms can be positioned so the upper body leans upon them. There are various ways to sit, but in each the buttocks and thighs are supporting the upper half of the body (torso).
The issue of excessive sitting has been recently raised in the medical community because of the distinct possibility that it increases the risk of cardiovascular (heart) disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other medical conditions. It has even been associated with increased risk of premature death.
An Australian study that was published online in the European Heart Journal on January 11, 2011, found that long periods of sitting were associated with “worse indicators of cardio-metabolic function and inflammation, such as larger waist circumferences, lower levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and higher levels of C-reactive protein (an important marker of inflammation) and triglyerides (blood fats).”
The study, which was conducted on American participants, went on to state that these problems were even found in people who exercised on a regular basis but still sat long hours. They concluded that regular respites from sitting, even standing for a little as a minute, were better than sitting continuously for long times. Dr. Genevieve Healy, from the University of Queensland (Brisbane, Australia), commented on the problem of sitting for extended periods within a WebMD article: “The potential adverse health impact of prolonged sitting (which is something that we do on average for more than half of our day), is only just being realized. Our research highlights the importance of considering prolonged sedentary time as a distinct health risk behavior that warrants explicit advice in future public health guidelines.”
Another scientist, Dr. James Levine, from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, performs experiments in what he calls inactivity studies. He found over years of study that some people gain much more weight than do others even though they are strictly controlled in the number of calories they are given each day and with no exercise allowed. Levine found that some people just naturally move their bodies more than do others. These little movements each day add to more calories burned even when no formal exercises are done.
According to the New York Times article “Sitting a Lethal Activity?” the difference in calories expended (burned) was the amount of sitting performed each day. It compared two groups of people after they were given more food than usual in their daily diets: “Their bodies simply responded naturally by making more little movements than they had before the overfeeding began, like taking the stairs, trotting down the hall to the office water cooler, bustling about with chores at home or simply fidgeting. On average, the subjects who gained weight sat two hours more per day than those who hadn't.”
Excessive sitting can lead to increased risk of a sore back, extra added pounds to body weight, and other common ailments found in many people. However, sitting for long periods of time can also increase one's risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
For instance, Dr. Marr Hamilton, from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, in Raton Rouge, Louisiana, has been an inactivity researcher for several years. Hamilton stated that sitting for long periods results in the electrical activity within the body to drastically decrease; that is, muscles are not moving. When this happens, the metabolic system of the body also declines. A sitting person does not burn many calories; in fact, it is reduced to about one third of the metabolic rate if one was walking around. In an experiment Hamilton performed, he found that young, healthy adults had a 40% reduction in the ability of insulin to take in glucose after only 24 hours of being sedentary. This inactivity adversely affects the metabolic rate within these people.
Although in the past, it was assumed that exercising and eating a good diet could counter long periods of sitting, new research has come to light that long periods of inactivity are not alleviated with exercise and healthy eating. Instead of sitting for long periods, medical professionals are now saying that it is necessary to periodically get up and move about when forced to sit for long periods, such as while at work during school, or even while riding in airplanes, trains, buses, or cars.
It has been proven that sitting for prolonged periods of time is detrimental to health. It is beneficial to health, therefore, to avoid sitting for long periods. If forced by job, school, or general circumstances to long periods of sitting, it is better to stand up or walk around periodically throughout the day. For instance, answer a telephone call while standing up, or walk over to a work or school colleague rather than emailing them. If for no purpose than just to be healthier, stand up frequently when forced to sit long hours.
Sitting has been found to adversely affect health of humans. It can also lead to premature death. An American Cancer Society study, headed by American epidemiologist Alpa Patel, researched around 123,000 Americans between 1992 and 2006 with respect to their health. Patel and her colleagues found that men who spent six or more hours sitting each day had an average death rate that was 20% higher than men who sat for three hours or less. For women, the rate was even worse, at 40% higher.
Patel concluded that sitting over six hours a day reduces one's life span for a few years. In addition, in a related study performed in Australia, it was concluded that each additional hour of sitting each day increases the risk of dying by 11%. The study, headed by Dr. David W. Dunstan, was published on January 11, 2010, within the journal Circulation under the title “Television Viewing Time and Mortality.”
Health officials in the United States recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. Walks in the park, hikes in the forest, or bike rides around the neighborhood are all good for physical and mental health. However, it is also important to stay active even if a job or school requires a lot of sitting. Rather than sitting sedentarily throughout the day, get out of the chair and stand or walk at least once an hour.
Dr. Toni Yancey, from the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity at the University of California (San Diego), wrote a book called “Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time.” In it, Yancey states that sitting for long hours is not what the human body is used to doing. Sitting causes the body to shut down its metabolism—it stops burning calories. Even though one has a sedentary job or must sit at a desk while at school, motion can still be incorporated into these periods of inactivity. Simply stand up, move arms or legs while sitting, walk in place, bend, twist, and other simple exercises help the body to remain active so it continues to burn calories and, more importantly, to maintain a healthy and fit lifestyle. Yancey recommends just a few minutes of simple movements every hour will help to counter excessive inactive periods of sitting.
Plowman, Sharon A., and Denise L. Smith. Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness, and Performance, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
Sutton, Amy L, ed. Fitness and Exercise Sourcebook, 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2007.
Yancey, Toni. Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Dunstan, D.W., et al. “Television Time and Mortality.” Circulation 121, no. 3 (January 11, 2010). http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/121/3/384.abstract?sid=e7f04689-9dec-47b0-bdc6-1b26adb72296 (accessed January 22, 2017).
“Exercise.” Texas Heart Institute. August 2016. http://www.texasheart.org/hic/topics/hsmart/exercis1.cfm (accessed January 18, 2017).
Harris, Siobhan. “Sitting for Too Long Is Bad for Your Health.” WebMD. January 12, 2011. http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20110112/sittingdown-too-long-bad-health#1 (accessed January 22, 2017).
“How Much Physical Activity Do You Need?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 4, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/index.htm (accessed January 22, 2017).
Neighmond, Patti. “Sitting All Day: Worse For You Than You Might Think.” NPR. April 25, 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/04/25/135575490/sitting-all-day-worsefor-you-than-you-might-think (accessed January 22, 2017).
Vlahos, James. “Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?” New York Times (April 14, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17sitting-t.html (accessed January 22, 2017).
Vorvick, Linda. “Physical Activity.” MedlinePlus. April 11, 2015. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001941.htm (accessed January 22, 2017).
National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, 1150 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC, 20036, (202) 454-7521, email@example.com, http://www.ncppa.org .
President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, 1101 Wootton Pkwy., Ste. 560, Rockville, MD, 20852, (240) 276-9567, Fax: (240) 276-9860, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.presidentschallenge.org .
SHAPE America, 1900 Association Dr., Reston, VA, 20191-1598, (800) 213-7193, Fax: (703) 476-9527, http://www.shapeamerica.org .
William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA