3 Steps to Reduce the Major Health Risk You Face Every Day

Whether it’s a chair, sofa, cushion, or tuffet, sitting for too long could shorten your life.

man sitting at desk

Updated on March 4, 2022.

In the United States, many people spend an awful lot of time sitting. We sit when we drive, eat, use the computer, watch TV, and read. Many of us sit for hours while we’re working or studying, too.

But the more time you stay planted on your rear, the shorter your lifespan is likely to be. In fact, before you read any further, you might want to stand up.

Sitting begets a host of health woes

Eye-opening research links sitting for hours at a time—what researchers call sedentary behavior—to higher risks for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer death, and premature death.

One 2019 study published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at nearly 150,000 Australian adults. Among those who were relatively inactive, more sitting was associated with a higher risk of death.

The same year in British Journal of Sports Medicine, a study that gathered data from 9 other studies found a similar result: More sitting among relatively inactive people correlated with more death due to cancer and heart disease. Other studies have tied sitting to higher risks for colorectal, breast, endometrial, prostate, pancreatic, and ovarian cancer.

Why is sitting so dangerous? It appears there’s just something about prolonged time spent on your bum that messes with your metabolism. Sitting is associated with unhealthy levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, cholesterol, and the “appetite hormone” leptin, as well as with higher blood pressure, all of which are biomarkers of heart disease.

The role of exercise

If you sit all day but go to the gym or take a walk after work, isn’t that enough? Maybe.

There is evidence that meeting or exceeding recommended levels of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise—150 minutes per week, and double that amount, according to one study—may protect you from the toxic effects of sitting, at least in part.

No question, moving more is tough, especially since many people’s jobs force them to work at a desk. But breaking up long swaths of time seated, even with a few minutes of movement, can make a difference. Here is what you can do to sit less:

  • Take activity breaks every half-hour or so. Make an effort to go get water or coffee so you’re forced to stand. Pace up and down or just stand when you’re on a phone call. Even fidgeting helps.
  • Go ahead, watch your favorite TV shows—but don’t just sit there. Cook, fold laundry, empty the dishwasher, do body-weight squats, or ride a stationary bike.
  • If you have to spend all day at your computer, consider investing in a stand-up desk or a treadmill desk. (In a pinch, an upside-down wooden crate or laundry basket on your desk can be a decent stand-up laptop desk.) That way you can cut back on your sitting time and stay on your toes more readily.
Article sources open article sources

Vallance JK, Gardiner PA, Lynch BM, et al. Evaluating the Evidence on Sitting, Smoking, and Health: Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?. Am J Public Health. 2018;108(11):1478-1482.
Patel AV, Bernstein L, Deka A, et al. Leisure time spent sitting in relation to total mortality in a prospective cohort of US adults. Am J Epidemiol. 2010;172(4):419-429.
Peggy Eastman. AICR Conference: New Research Shows Cancer Risks of Sedentary Lifestyle. Oncology Times: January 10, 2012. Volume 34, Issue 1, p 18-19.
Fritschi C, Park H, Richardson A, et al. Association Between Daily Time Spent in Sedentary Behavior and Duration of Hyperglycemia in Type 2 Diabetes. Biol Res Nurs. 2016;18(2):160-166.
Crichton GE, Alkerwi A. Physical activity, sedentary behavior time and lipid levels in the Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg study. Lipids Health Dis. 2015;14:87. Published 2015 Aug 11.
Allison MA, Jensky NE, Marshall SJ, Bertoni AG, Cushman M. Sedentary behavior and adiposity-associated inflammation: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Am J Prev Med. 2012;42(1):8-13.
Sohn MW, Manheim LM, Chang RW, et al. Sedentary behavior and blood pressure control among osteoarthritis initiative participants. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2014;22(9):1234-1240.
American Heart Association News. Sitting too much may raise heart disease risk. August 15, 2016.
Dunstan DW, Dogra S, Carter SE, Owen N. Sit less and move more for cardiovascular health: emerging insights and opportunities. Nat Rev Cardiol. 2021;18(9):637-648.
Stamatakis E, Gale J, Bauman A, Ekelund U, Hamer M, Ding D. Sitting Time, Physical Activity, and Risk of Mortality in Adults [published correction appears in J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019 Jun 4;73(21):2789]. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019;73(16):2062-2072.
Ekelund U, Brown WJ, Steene-Johannessen J, et al. Do the associations of sedentary behaviour with cardiovascular disease mortality and cancer mortality differ by physical activity level? A systematic review and harmonised meta-analysis of data from 850 060 participants. Br J Sports Med. 2019;53(14):886-894.
Rangul V, Sund ER, Mork PJ, Røe OD, Bauman A. The associations of sitting time and physical activity on total and site-specific cancer incidence: Results from the HUNT study, Norway. PLoS One. 2018;13(10):e0206015. Published 2018 Oct 23.
Ihira H, Sawada N, Yamaji T, et al. Occupational sitting time and subsequent risk of cancer: The Japan Public Health Center-based Prospective Study. Cancer Sci. 2020;111(3):974-984.
Lee J. Physical activity, sitting time, and the risk of ovarian cancer: A brief research report employing a meta-analysis of existing. Health Care Women Int. 2019;40(4):433-458.
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Ekelund U, Steene-Johannessen J, Brown WJ, et al. Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women [published correction appears in Lancet. 2016 Sep 24;388(10051):e6]. Lancet. 2016;388(10051):1302-1310

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