Do you sit in an office chair or on your couch for more than six hours a day? Then here are some disturbing facts: Your risk of heart disease has increased by up to 64 percent. You’re shaving off seven years of quality life. You’re also more at risk for certain types of cancer. Simply put, sitting is killing you. That’s the bad news. The good news: It’s easy to counteract no matter how lazy you are.
Let’s start with the basics. Since childhood you’ve known being a couch potato is bad. But why? Simply put, our bodies weren’t made to sit all day. Sitting for long periods of time, even with exercise, has a negative effect on our health. What’s worse, many of us sit up to 15 hours a day. That means some of us spend the bulk of our waking moments on the couch, in an office chair, or in a car.
Sitting all day long isn’t hard to counteract, but you have to keep your eye on two details: your daily activity and the amount of time you sit. Let’s start by taking a look at what sitting all day does to your body.
An Estimated Timeline of the Effects of Sitting
It’s difficult to get an accurate assessment of what sitting all day will do to you because the effects work in tandem with diet and other risk factors. So we’re going to start with a relatively healthy person who does not drink in excess, smoke, and who isn’t overweight. Then we’ll estimate the effects of sitting for over six hours a day based on what starts happening immediately after you sit down.
-Immediately After Sitting
Right after you sit down, the electrical activity in your muscles slows down and your calorie-burning rate drops to one calorie per minute. This is about a third of what it does if you’re walking. If you sit for a full 24-hour period, you experience a 40 percent reduction in glucose uptake in insulin, which can eventually cause type 2 diabetes.
-After Two Weeks of Sitting for More Than Six Hours a Day
Within five days of changing to a sedentary lifestyle, your body increases plasma triglycerides (fatty molecules), LDL cholesterol (aka bad cholesterol), and insulin resistance. This means your muscles aren’t taking in fat and your blood sugar levels go up, putting you at risk for weight gain. After just two weeks your muscles start to atrophy and your maximum oxygen consumption drops. This makes stairs harder to climb and walks harder to take. Even if you were working out every day the deterioration starts the second you stop moving.
-After One Year of Sitting More Than Six Hours a Day
After a year, the longer term effects of sitting can start to manifest subtly. According to this study by Nature, you might start to experience weight gain and high cholesterol. Studies in woman suggest you can lose up to 1 percent of bone mass a year by sitting for over six hours a day.
-After 10-20 Years of Sitting More Than Six Hours a Day
Sitting for over six hours a day for a decade or two can cut away about seven quality adjusted life years (the kind you want). It increases your risk of dying of heart disease by 64 percent and your overall risk of prostate or breast cancer increases 30 percent.
If this looks bad, don’t worry. Here are different ways to counteract the negative effects of sitting without totally altering your lifestyle.
Counteract the Consequences of Sitting and Still Maintain Your Current Lifestyle
Happily, you only need to do two things to counter the effects of sitting all day:
- Remember to stand once an hour.
- Get about 30 minutes of activity per day.
Whether you’re a couch potato watching marathons of Firefly or an office worker sitting in front of a computer, an Australian study suggests short breaks from sitting once an hour can alleviate most of the problems described above. This isn’t about working out (which is positive in its own right but doesn’t counteract the effects of long periods of sitting). It’s about creating pockets of moderate activity throughout the day and giving your body a respite from sitting.
Start by Finding Your Daily Baseline with a Pedometer
The first thing to do is track how much activity you get in a regular day. The easiest way to do this is with a pedometer that tracks the number of footsteps taken.
The first step is to take a 30-minute walk and see how many steps you take.
Next, you want to find a baseline of your daily activity. Start using the pedometer when you wake up in the morning and keep it in your pocket (or running on your phone) until you go to bed. This will give you an estimate of your regular daily activity.
Meet Your Daily Activity Target by Slightly Altering Your Behavior
A few simple changes to your daily behavior will help you reach your goal. Here are a few ideas for how to do it without really trying:
- Park near the back of the parking lot.
- Stand up to visit the file cabinet instead of rolling your chair.
- Walk over and talk to a coworker instead of emailing them.
- Take the scenic route to the bathroom instead of the most direct.
Meeting your target activity level is just the first step. The second part is much simpler and only requires you stand up now and again.
Set an Hourly Standing Alarm to Remind You to Stand
We know that if you stand up for just one or two minutes every hour, it can reduce the negative effect of sitting all day. Technically, you don’t even have to move, the act of standing alone helps. When you’re in the moment and working hard, it’s difficult to remember.
If the alarm isn’t enough, you can download dedicated software to remind you. Windows users can use free programs like, Workrave or Breaker to set up automated alerts. For Macs, Time Out seems the best free option. These programs will remind you to stand and dim the desktop to force you out of your chair.
It’s up to you how you use these micro-breaks. You don’t even have to move if you don’t want to, but if you want to get a little activity in that minute, here’s a quick way to do it without leaving your desk area:
- Stand up.
- March in place for twenty seconds.
- Reach down and try to touch your toes for twenty seconds.
- Wander around and pick up or reorganize for the last twenty seconds (eventually your desk area may even be clean).
Turn those Crappy Commercials into an Excuse to Get Up.
TV commercials suck. Instead of wasting time watching the same car commercial you’ve seen for the last 20 years, consider the commercial break a chance to stand and stretch.
Most of the activities we sit down to enjoy have natural breaks in them. If you’re reading you can stand up after a chapter or two. If you’re playing board games you can stand up after each match. Instead of sitting and turning your mind off, stand and do it. It’s really that simple.
The moral here is two-fold: stand up once an hour and get at least 30 minutes of activity in a day. That’s it. Unless you’re overweight, you don’t have to start exercising or going to the gym to counteract the negative effects of sitting. You just have to make sure you’re moving throughout the day. You don’t even have to give up your TV marathons—you just need to accent them with a little hourly effort.