It's easy to take a stand against 'sitting disease,' researcher says

You probably won't find it in medical dictionaries, but a problem that has come to be known as sitting disease is rampant in the USA. The term captures how many people are glued to their seats for hours at the office, in their cars and in front of the TV.

Government statistics suggest that almost half of us report sitting more than six hours a day; 65% say they spend more than two hours a day watching TV.

But it's taking a toll on health. A recent study showed that if people spent less than three hours a day sitting, it would add two years to the average U.S. life expectancy. And research has linked sitting too much to increased risks of diabetes and death from cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Endocrinologist James Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., talks about sitting disease and how to get out of the chair and move more. Levine did some of the original research on the topic and is still investigating it -- from a treadmill at his desk.

Q: Some people sit most of the day. How can they move more?

A: They can pace when talking on the phone; climb stairs whenever they can; stand while talking to a friend, colleague or even folding laundry. They can have walk-and-talk meetings during the day instead of sedentary meetings. Some offices are offering treadmills at people's desks or treadmill-enhanced conference rooms. There are steppers that slip under your desk and can be used to step on during a telephone call. There are self-monitoring devices that give you a buzz when you have sat too long.

You can take a quick jog or walk around the block before your morning shower; a 15- to 30-minute walk at lunch; and a 15-minute catch-up walk after work with your partner.

Q: How can people change their mind-set?

A: It is critical to develop a degree of consciousness to your sitting habits and develop the resolve to move. The mantra we use is: Tag it, think it, do it. For instance, tag an activity where you want to become active such as a weekly telephone conference. Think about how you will make it chair-free -- for instance, get a longer handset-to-phone cord. Then do it. Make that weekly teleconference active -- pace about your desk during the call.

Q: How much should people get up every hour to avoid sitting disease?

A: No one knows for sure, but if you've been sitting for an hour, you've been sitting for too long. My gut feeling, based on the science, is you should be up for 10 minutes of every hour. Some research shows that getting up regularly during the day may reduce the health risks of prolonged sitting. But you do not have to sacrifice productivity. In fact, data suggest work productivity may improve.

Q: Do you think standing at your desk at work is much better than sitting at it?

A: Yes. If you are standing, you are more likely to move. You cannot walk unless you are standing. Studies suggest that if you can get people standing, they will move more and their health parameters will improve.

Q: How much is sitting too much affecting our health?

A: On a grand scale, the chair-sentence (being sentenced to too much sitting) of modern American offices has been associated with marked increases in diabetes, blood pressure problems, cancer, heart attacks and death. Most likely if you are working in an American office, you are sitting too much. Currently, the default at work is sitting. We need the default to be standing.

Q: Are some people hard-wired to move more than others?

A: Genetic data suggest that some people are predisposed to move more when confronted with modernity. Other people appear to be predisposed to the seduction of the chair. Regardless of your genes, you are probably sitting too much.

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