If You Sit Too Long, Your Chair May Kill You

By now, almost everyone should know that exercise improves health. But even if you can’t or won’t spend an extended amount of time working out, there’s a simple movement you can do right now, at your desk or in your living room that can make a huge difference for your well-being: Stand up. That’s right. Occasionally standing up, even if you get no other exercise, is vital for keeping your weight down and lowering your risk of illness.

Sitting Dangerously

A growing body of research shows that prolonged sitting, without getting off your chair or couch, endangers your well-being no matter how much exercise you get at other times. When you are immobilized in front of a computer or television screen for a long time, your metabolism slows and your interior physiology changes in unhealthy ways. “The enzymes in blood vessels of muscles responsible for fat burning are shut off within hours of not standing,” warns Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., a researcher and professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Standing and moving lightly will re-engage the enzymes… Since people are awake 16 hours a day, it stands to reason that when people sit much of that time they are losing the opportunity for optimal metabolism throughout the day.”

Even if you are a dedicated exerciser who walks, runs, bikes, swims, dances or lifts weights, if you sit for long periods of time without budging, your exercise sessions will not entirely compensate for the negative health effects of your inactivity. For example, a study from researchers at the American Cancer Society showed that the longer you sit every day, the larger your risk of dying, no matter how many times you go to the gym or jogging trail.

In this research, scientists analyzed the lifestyle habits of more than 120,000 people over a period of about 13 years. They found that the amount of time somebody spent sitting was directly related to his risk of dying during the study. Women who sat more than six hours a day were 37 percent more likely to die than those who sat less than three hours daily. Men who stayed in their chairs more than six hours a day were 18 percent more likely to die than their counterparts who were sitting down for only three hours each day.

Among people who never exercised at all, sitting for six hours a day was particularly lethal. The non-exercising women who sat for six hours a day were 94 percent more likely to die. The totally sedentary men were at a 48 percent increased risk.

All that sitting directly harms your heart and metabolism. “Prolonged time spent sitting, independent of physical activity, has been shown to have important metabolic consequences,” says Alpa Patel, Ph.D., who took part in the research. “(It) may influence things like triglycerides, high density lipoprotein, cholesterol, fasting plasma glucose, resting blood pressure and leptin which are biomarkers of obesity and cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.”

Take A Break

If you have a job that requires long periods of sitting, the best bet for coping with this inactivity is to either work standing up (Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway had desks that allowed them to stand) or take frequent breaks out of your chair. Research on sitting reported in the European Heart Journal found that the more times you stand up during a day of mostly sitting, the better your chances are of avoiding heart disease and keeping your weight down. According to Dr. Genevieve Healy, who led this study, “for the number of breaks in sedentary time, the most significant differences were observed for waist circumference… The people who took the most breaks had, on average, a 4.1 cm (1.6 inches) smaller waist circumference…”

To keep from being too sedentary at a desk job, Dr. Healy suggests:

  • Stand up when you make phone calls.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Walk to other offices to confer with colleagues instead of instant messaging.
  • Use a bathroom on another floor.
  • Encourage co-workers to stand up during meetings or have regular breaks during conferences.
  • Incorporate walking into daily routines by having to walk to your printer rather than locating a printer in your office.

You Have To Move

The evidence is clear: Your chair can kill you if you let it. But, if you get up more often and walk around, or even if you merely stand, you can offset some of the unhealthy effects of sitting too long. And all you have to do to get healthier is get to your feet.


Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.