HEALTH AND FITNESS: Living from chair to chair

  • Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2014 1:59 p.m.

You probably know that participating in regular physical activity is among the most important things you can do to improve your health. This activity can include exercise as well as just about anything else that gets you moving.

Parking further away at the store, walking the dog, even doing yard work are all recommended ways to be more active. The message, from me and others, is that every little bit of activity counts.

Of course, doing more activity, including both higher intensity (traditional exercise) and longer duration (a longer walk) can bring greater health benefits.

What you may not know is that being sedentary, especially spending time sitting, is just as detrimental to your health as not being active. In fact, spending most of the day sitting can undo some of the benefits of exercising.

It's true; a person who doesn't exercise but moves a lot during the day at work or home may be healthier than someone who exercises every day but spends much of the rest of their day sitting! (To be sure, that person is much better off than someone who doesn't exercise and sits all day.)

You may also be surprised how much time most people, yourself included, spend sitting. While some people have jobs that keep them active, most occupations involve sitting much of the day.

The situation outside work isn't much better, between lengthy commutes in the car and hours of “screen time” at home.

This sedentary time comes at the expense of being active, especially doing vigorous activity that causes you to break a sweat, like exercise. And the extent to which we avoid vigorous activity is shocking!

A recent study used measurements of physical activity recorded continuously for several days in more than 2,500 adults to determine how much time the typical American spends being active or sedentary.

The results show that the average adult spends about 8 hours each day being sedentary (sitting, mostly), and about 6 hours being active. Almost all of that activity time was light intensity activity, around 20 to 30 minutes was moderate-intensity (a brisk walk) and less than a minute of vigorous activity per day. Less than a minute!

As the author of this study noted, many people seem to be living from “one chair to another.”

Men were slightly more active than women, and overweight and obese men and women were less active than normal weight individuals. Obese women got just one hour of exercise per year. Obese men were not much better, with less than 3 hours of vigorous activity per year.

These levels of physical activity are far below the recommended minimum of 30 minutes of moderate activity each day or at least 20 minutes of exercise three days per week.

The consequences of sitting so much instead of being active can be severe, including higher body fatness, poor physical function and increased risk of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Another study suggests that these consequences also include an increased risk of disability. In this study, older adults who were less active reported more difficulty completing self-care tasks including getting in and out of bed, eating, dressing or walking. In fact, each additional hour of sedentary time increased the risk of this type of disability by almost 50 percent.

Most of us live a life that includes too much sedentary time, especially sitting and too little activity. This has serious health consequences both now and as we age.

But you can take steps (literally!) to become more active by sitting less, moving more, and making time each day to be active.

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.

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