More and more articles about the deadly effects of a sedentary lifestyle are reported in newspapers and magazines. Many scientific studies agree that even if you work out, if you sit a long time each day, the workout does not negate the bad effect of the sedentary lifestyle. In some sense, it is hype rather than scare tactics intended to make people buy more things (such as standing desks), but we can’t deny the results that many scientists are finding.
For example, Dr. Joan Vernikos, a former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and an author of the book “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals,” found that gravity is the key to longevity. Many astronauts who spent time in the space station prematurely age, because they can’t interact with gravity. She also observed similar situations among older people. People who spend time sitting or laying on bed all day long tend to age much quicker than people standing up and walking around often.
She also found that how often you stand up during the day counts, not how long you are standing. She recommends us to stand up every 20 minutes during the day and walk around a bit. Although this is not a cure-all, it could solve many medical problems that the baby boomers are now facing. According to her, it is never too late. Even if you are already in your 80s, if you start standing up regularly throughout the day, you can improve your health.
This is really good advice that we all should follow. However, the current work environment is made for people to sit at desk all day long. For many people, it is very difficult to follow her advice during a work day.
However, there is some hope. A recent study published by researchers at University of Texas found that, though the sedentary lifestyle is directly correlated to the death rate, if you are fit, you can lower the risk of the sedentary effect.
So what are the implication of this?
You still need to stand up often. Stand up at every opportunity. It is the minimum safeguard to keeping you healthy. However, if you cannot do that often, you need to workout slightly more intensely.
By now, we all know that a high intensity workout is generally better than a low intensity long workout. I said “generally,” since a moderate intensity long workout has its health benefits, too. Unfortunately for most of us, we don’t have the time and hence, it is better to do a high-intensity short workout.
As a countermeasure to the deadly sedentary lifestyle, I recommend “exercise snacks.” I did not make up this term. Researchers at University of Otago, New Zealand, did. They found that if you do a high-intensity but short workout before your meals, you can control your blood sugar level much better than with one continuous moderate workout. Controlling your blood sugar level is a great way to lower the chance of getting a cardiovascular disease and also lower the chance of weight gain, so it is a great countermeasure to the sedentary lifestyle.
What I suggest may seem difficult, but it is not. Do Tabata type workouts three times a day before your major meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The lunch is the most difficult one. You may replace it with walking, which is a low intensity workout, but better than sitting!
You need to get up 15 minutes earlier to do this. It’s nice to have a stationary bike at home. If not, you can find some 3-minute Tabata workouts from the web. Since the body is not ready to move, you need to warm the body up at least 10 minutes on the bike. Then do 3 minutes of Tabata workout. Then take a shower and have breakfast. Do the same for dinner.
For lunchtime, if you have access to a gym, do a similar workout for 15 minutes before lunch. If you don’t, find stairs and go up and down several times (it is nice if you can change to a T-shirt). If you can’t do this at a lunch time, just walk around, or keep standing for 30 minutes.
I know that it may need some logistics before you can do it, but if you spend the entire day in front of a computer, you really need to think about your health before it is too late.
Sedentary Behavior, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Physical Activity, and Cardiometabolic Risk in Men: The Cooper Center Longitudinal Study. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2014
Exercise snacks’ before meals: a novel strategy to improve glycaemic control in individuals with insulin resistance. Diabetologia, 2014