The latest culprit that undermines diet and exercise for weight loss finally has a name – sitting disease. Here’s what to do about it.
Knowing what sitting disease is and what to do about it is great news for everyone who has had trouble losing weight and keeping it off. Part of the good news is that it’s one of the easiest and cheapest of all the weight loss methods ever discovered.
Sitting Disease – Big News That’s Not New
This impetus for this post was the headline article in USA Today (July 19, 2014) titled, Retirees: Sitting disease may be killing you. Retirees like me may feel like taking umbrage at this headline, especially since the body of the article had nothing specifically to do with us. It had to do with everyone who sits too much.
Sitting disease isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s just one that has acquired a new name recently. My first post on this topic here (Silly Number One Fat Loss Secret) was based on research that led to an article in the Dallas Business Journal in 2013, titled, A new work epidemic? How sitting is slowly killing you. It was obviously directed at business people who spend too much time sitting.
The main point of such articles is that we sit too much and it’s bad for our health. How bad? The USA Today article quoted Dr. James A. Levine, Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ, that “there are 34 chronic diseases and conditions associated with excess sitting.” The big ones include some of the usual suspects: cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes. The list also includes cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia), disability in people over 60, and death from cancer. Not just getting cancer … death from cancer.
The icing on this sedentary cake is life expectancy. Excessive sitting drops about 2 years off of your life, on average. A few experts have been referring to sitting disease as the ‘new smoking’ due to the similarities in their respective negative health consequences.
No wonder that Dr. Levine has come so far in his work on the topic that he now confidently says that, “Excessive sitting is a lethal activity.”
Of course, there are some further ins and outs of this whole subject that you’ll need to know for understanding the importance of what you do to stay upright and active – the usual core concerns of any physical endeavor for health. In a nutshell, these are always going to be: frequency, intensity, and duration of effort.
More good news: overcoming excessive sitting has little or nothing to do with working out. Indeed, a daily workout has little benefit in overcoming the consequences of sitting too much.
Now for some details and pointers on what you should know and what you MUST do every day.
Do You Sit Too Much?
Most people sit 10-15 hours per day. If you’re like most people, at least in that respect, then, yes, you sit too much. You can, of course, go to the trouble of keeping a diary of how much you sit, if you really must know the details. Odds are, however, that excessive sitting is part of your daily lifestyle.
The amount of sitting varies, according to research surveys, depending on whether you are at work, at home, or at play. As you can expect, leisure is usually the most active time, with the least amount of sitting.
In contrast, work days are sitting extravaganzas. Sitting for an hour or more while at work is common. Even commuting to and from work entails sitting. Ten hours of an average work day, including commuting, meals, and work, are spent sitting.
Add to that the average time that Americans spend in front of their TV every day, which is about 2.8 hours.
So, yes, you undoubtedly sit too much. Nearly everyone does.
Standing Up – Minimum Requirements
Negative physiological changes happen within a single hour of sitting. Specifically, an hour of physical inactivity suppresses a key skeletal muscle enzyme, called lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which is crucial for controlling the breakdown of plasma triglycerides and for driving up the level of HDL cholesterol.
An hour of sitting reduces the activity of skeletal muscle LPL by about 90 percent. ALL of the negative consequences of physical inactivity start right then and there.
Regarding advice on one of the components of standing up to overcome sitting disease … i.e., frequency of effort, you have to get up from your chair at least once per hour, all day long, to effectively ameliorate the effects of suppressing LPL.
The second component … duration of effort … is not so obvious. However, Dr. Levine and his colleagues have found that standing up for 10 minutes at a time is beneficial.
How about intensity of effort? Well, standing up is simply standing up. You don’t have to somehow turn standing into ‘intense’ standing. You just have to stand up.
What you do while standing is almost irrelevant. Some folks walk around. Others jump onto a trampoline for some light bouncing (this offers the bonus of enhancing the flow of your lymphatic system … very important).
At the high end, business executives have bought into the concept of a desk treadmill so they can walk while they work. Dr. Levine invented such a treadmill exactly for that purpose.
My personal approaches include reading a book for 10 minutes while standing, putting my laptop on a milk crate on my desk and simply standing while I work, taking short walks around my neighborhood (a perk of working from home), and occasionally peeking in on ESPN’s SportsCenter for a quick (standing) update. Oh, and standing while on the phone.
By the way, this is where the so-called ‘bachelor style of eating’ works well … i.e., standing over the kitchen sink while you eat. This is great if you eat alone. My wife and I both use this strategy when we don’t eat together. I am sure we will eat together standing up at some point, aside from the pregame tailgaters that we already attend.
The bottom line is that, whether you are working, watching TV, or doing anything else that has you sitting for an hour or more, then you’ve been sitting too much. You really must get out of your chair for 10 minutes at a time out of every hour – 50 minutes of sitting and 10 minutes of standing. This is a very simple strategy that provides tremendous health benefits, and it works almost anywhere you are (maybe not at the movies?).
That’s the optimum according to Dr. Levine and others who are now studying the new field of ‘inactivity physiology’. Even if you don’t meet the optimum, though, research shows that simply getting up intermittently throughout the day might reduce the consequences of sitting too much.
Just get creative and do what it takes. Your health will be better for it.
If You Have Physical Disabilities
Dr. Levine works with many patients who are wobbly on their legs or even confined to a wheelchair. Even in these cases, movement is the key. Arm-waving movements, such as ‘arm dancing’ to music, or any other activity that gets you moving, in spite of having to sit, will be helpful. Just move!
Regular Exercise Does Not Help – Go NEAT Instead
Remember our heyday, when we would all go out and run 5 miles at noon every day? Or play racquetball, basketball, tennis, or some other high-intensity sport? Or even hit the gym for a mid-day or end-of-day workout on the treadmill or other machine?
Yes, those were the good old days, maybe even the good current days for some. All that working out and playing certainly has its benefits, mentally and physically. However, one thing it does NOT do is reduce the effects of prolonged sitting.
If you have suppressed your LPL enzyme for hours at a time, no amount of exercise will make up for lost time. Exercise doesn’t put LPL into any kind of high-speed mode that lets you catch up from excessive sitting.
The only way to overcome the ills of sitting is standing up or moving around every hour. Remember, LPL activity drops by about 90 percent within an hour of sitting. It takes only 10 minutes of standing to reinvigorate it.
The jargon that the medical folks like Dr. Levine have come up with for this ‘non-exercise’ is NEAT: non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Thermogenesis is just a fancy way for saying generating heat, which to most folks means using calories. The concept of NEAT has become so significant to Dr. Levine that he has published several research articles on it, including three reviews of the subject.
This is fascinating stuff to me, which I want to share with you if you’re really interested. For that reason, I have downloaded the entire list of Dr. Levine’s publications, including abstracts when available, and saved it to a pdf file that you can get by clicking on this link: James Levine Research Publications.
Dr. Levine also has two books on the subject, both available at Amazon. They are:
Move a Little, Lose a Lot: Use N.E.A.T.* Science to: Burn 2,100 Calories a Week at the Office, Be Smarter in as Little as 3 Hours, Reduce Fatigue by 65%, Extend Your Lifespan by 4 Years (2009)
Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It (2014)
As far as the main message goes, the 2009 book has all the information you will ever need beyond this post. The 2014 book is mostly the story of his professional development and has little to do with the alluring title.
Isn’t There a Drug or Supplement That Will Help?
This may seem like silly question, since really all you need is more standing and moving time. Nevertheless, drug companies are already looking into it. Can you imagine taking a pill that eliminates the effects of inactivity. It seems like an affront to Mother Nature, in my opinion.
The surprise is that some progress has already been made. It turns out that, in lab animals, some benefit against excessive inactivity is possible by taking nicotinic acid, one form of which is better known as niacin. As usual in lab experiments, doses were huge and results were limited.
The short answer to the question about drugs or supplements is that, no, there is no such practical example as of yet. Stay tuned to this topic. There may be uses for folks who are quadriplegic or otherwise totally immobile, where such a drug can be helpful. For most of us, though, it’s a solution to a problem that has already been solved.
Crucial Weight Loss Tips
Although standing up more often has its health benefits, including weight loss, a few other simple lifestyle choices are crucial for getting your weight to where you want it to be and keeping it there for the rest of your life. Some of these choices are surprisingly simple and phenomenally effective.
The best weight loss remedies are those supported by excellent scientific research. This is the approach that I’ve taken in my book on the topic, titled How to Lose Belly Fat and Keep It Off. You can get a clearer picture of what this book is about by clicking on that link. Go ahead and click on it now and check it out for yourself. You’will be pleasantly surprised to find out how easy and inexpensive it is to lose weight when you do it the right way.
All the best in natural health,
Statements on this page have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Dear Dr. D, I want to add to your good article re hypromellose capsules that they can cause serious vision problems even when consumed, not used as the liquid eye lubricant. We figured this out and bought a capsuling machine (small, inexpensive) and buy our supplements in bulk, avoiding the unnecessary fillers. Even fairly pricey well known brands use them. It is used in tableting of Rx pills as well. And virtually all American eye medications! Yikes!
Dr. Dennis Clark says
Wow, Valerie. That’s taking the bull by the horns! The bonus is that part about avoiding fillers. They can be just as bad as the hypromellose. Every 10 mg dose of something that’s packed into a 200 mg capsule must have so many ‘other’ ingredients. Nice strategy on your part for avoiding all that. Thanks for your input. Keep up the good work!