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Yesterday, I ordered myself one of those standing desks. My lower back is starting to feel the ill effects of sitting in front of my computer all day long.
I try to get up every hour or so and walk a bit but it doesn’t always happen.
But after reading some recent research on cancer and living a sedentary lifestyle, you can bet I’ll be taking that walk or doing some yoga, even once my standing desk arrives.
No, walking more can’t prevent cancer. But if I am ever faced with a cancer diagnosis, I know now that taking those walks will make my survival much more likely.
Sitting too much is deadly
For the first time, researchers have taken an objective look at the relationship between living a sedentary lifestyle and cancer mortality.
“This is the first study that definitively shows a strong association between not moving and cancer death,” says Dr. Susan Gilchrist, associate professor of Clinical Cancer Prevention at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, lead author of the study.
“Our findings show that the amount of time a person spends sitting prior to a cancer diagnosis is predictive of time to cancer death.”
Got that? The time to start moving is now, not when you receive a cancer diagnosis.
“Conversations with my patients always begin with why they don’t have time to exercise,” said Gilchrist, who leads MD Anderson’s Healthy Heart Program. “I tell them to consider standing up for 5 minutes every hour at work or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It might not sound like a lot, but this study tells us even light activity has cancer survival benefits.”
Of course, there are all kinds of other health reasons to live a more active lifestyle. According to the World Health Organization, insufficient physical activity is one of the ten leading risk factors for death worldwide.
Even if you eat well and have a regular exercise routine, sitting all day long is a killer.
But now, well, with my mother’s history of breast cancer, and knowing that about 42,000 women die of breast cancer in the United States each year, according to the CDC, I’ve got a very good reason to take this seriously.
Even a little movement can lower your risk
Subjects in the University of Texas study were 8,002 people ages 45 and older who did not have a cancer diagnosis when the study began. Each wore an accelerometer on their hip while they were awake, for seven consecutive days, so researchers did not depend on self-reporting of sedentary vs. non-sedentary behaviors.
Data from the accelerometers was gathered between 2009 and 2013. At a five-year follow-up, 268 subjects had died of cancer. The most sedentary individuals had an 82% higher risk of cancer mortality compared to the least sedentary individuals.
But what’s really important is this: Dr. Gilchrist and her colleagues also found that even light or moderate physical activity made a difference in the risk of dying.
“From a practical perspective, this means that individuals who replaced 10 to 30 minutes of sedentary time with either light-intensity physical activity or moderate to vigorous physical activity had a lower risk of cancer mortality,” says Dr. Gilchrist.
How to sit less and move more
A lot of us are working from home now. If you are, or even if you’re still going into a workplace where you sit for much of the day, you’ll want to develop some new habits now, before your health deteriorates.
And if you’re lucky enough to be sitting and reading or watching a lot of TV during this time, you’ll still need ways to get yourself up and moving.
Here are some ideas:
Schedule your moves. I find that anything I write in my planner gets done. Anything I don’t doesn’t. Write in a 30-minute walk. It doesn’t matter when… after lunch, before breakfast, mid-morning. The important thing is that you schedule it, and follow through.
Get an adjustable sit/stand desk. Make sure you stand up every 90 minutes or so. You’d be surprised how comfortable it can be to work on your computer while standing up.
Use a step tracker. Find an app on your phone that counts your steps for the day. That way, you know for sure that you’ve been moving. Set a goal and congratulate yourself when you’ve reached it. Keep a running record in your planner so you can look back and see your progress.
Park far away. When you go to the store, park at the far end of the parking lot and build some extra steps into your day.
Try the Pomodoro technique. It will make you more productive and give you a chance for 10 minutes of walking every half hour or so, even if it’s up and down your stairs. That counts!
Move during commercials. If you’re a TV watcher, use commercial breaks to get up and stretch. Don’t sit down again until the commercials are over.
Make trips to the kitchen or breakroom to get a drink. If you’re working at a desk, instead of keeping water nearby, walk to the kitchen or breakroom several times a day to get a drink. The same goes for snacks and lunch.
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