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If you are sitting while reading this, you may want to stand. Dr. David Alter, a cardiologist and senior scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI), says that while sitting may not be as bad for your health as smoking, it’s still pretty bad.

“Smoking can decrease your life expectancy by 10 years whereas sitting can by three years. But more people sit than smoke,” he noted during a recent live webinar. Indeed. Looking more closely at the stats, a startling picture of what he calls the “physical inactivity crisis” unfolds.

Specifically, while 15 to 25 percent of people smoke, 75 to 85 percent of the population is inactive. Therefore, given the strong link between inactivity and a 60 percent relative increase in obesity, any strides we’ve made improving life expectancy by decreasing smoking will be counteracted or suppressed by the rise in obesity over the next 20 to 30 years, according to Dr. Alter.

Sitting for even short periods of time causes muscles to go dormant and slows the body’s metabolism of sugar. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Tim Parkinson.

Why sitting is so bad
Way back when we were hunters and gathers, we burned upwards to 1,000 calories a day. Today, we are lucky if get an extra 300 calories worth through exercise.

The trouble is when sit either for long periods, or even for frequent short bouts, our muscle go dormant. And when that happens, he added, our bodies metabolize sugars much lower, and in turn, the increased glucose in our bodies turns to fat, which we store, increasing our risk for obesity and many other diseases.

“Sitting is bad regardless of exercise, but it’s much worse if we don’t exercise at all,” Dr. Alter says.

Dr. Alter conducted research for two years and showed that sitting is an independent risk for bad health, irrespective of exercise – causing a two-fold higher risk of diabetes, 14 percent higher risk heart of disease, 13 percent cancer and a 24 percent higher risk of all causes of death. Moreover, those who sat a lot and did not exercise, had a 46 percent higher risk of death.

Unfortunately, standing workstations are not a panacea. While standing 2.3 hours a day to work will result in 20 to 30 kilogram weight loss over a year (assuming you are not eating extra calories), over time it may not be healthier. As Dr. Alter points out, “It can lead to varicose veins and back problems.”

So, is there a remedy for this new health danger, especially for those who have desk jobs? Yes. Alter showed that those who sat a lot but exercised 30 minutes daily only had a 14 to 16 percent higher risk of death. “Sitting is bad regardless of exercise, but it’s much worse if we don’t exercise at all,” he says.

For every 10 percent increase in a population that exercises, there is a 2.5-year extension in average life expectancy. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Robert Pittman.

The “exercise pill”
“The biggest health challenge of our time is the ‘no do gap,’” says Dr. Alter. That’s why doctors are increasingly prescribing activity, or the “exercise pill.” Because for every 10 percent increase in exercise in the population, there is a two-and-half year extension in average life expectancy and $2.5 million savings in healthcare expenses, he said.

In order to reverse our unhealthy ‘sitting’ lifestyle, we need to change our culture. But even he noted how the clichéd suggestions such as “take the stairs” and “park farther away” are either too boring to fill the gap or are simply not resonating with people.

Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise each week. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Hanna Norlin.

Dr. Alter’s solution? Recalibrating our MET or metabolic equivalent task.

In a nutshell, MET is how intense we exercise and how many calories we burn per hour. The more MET we can achieve, the better fitness we can achieve and the healthier we will be because our bodies aren’t relying on or straining our organs to pump oxygen, and our arteries will have less plaque in them, Dr. Alter explains. The average number per week we need, based on scientific proof, to reduce our risk of disease and mortality, is 750 METs.

While TRI is developing a handy calculator you can use to measure the MET in almost any kind of activity, a simpler rule of thumb is to get 150 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise a week, says Alter.

How hard is moderate to vigorous? Not so hard to the point where you can’t speak a sentence, but if you are able to sing an opera, that’s not hard enough.

It doesn’t really matter how we get our 150 minutes every week, whether you do it all on the weekend or break it up into 10-minute instalments. The key is to get up out of the chair and move.

And for those who say they are just too busy? “What do you do when you have to brush your teeth or shower?” Dr. Alter asks. “You make time. It’s the way you prioritize your time.”