The sitting epidemic – Can we just exercise more?

It is not uncommon for people to spend one-half of their waking day sitting, with relatively idle muscles. The other half of the day includes the often large volume of non-exercise physical activity. Given the increasing pace of technological change in domestic, community, and workplace environments, modern humans may still not have reached the historical pinnacle of physical inactivity.

There are a number of recommended exercise guidelines that are available to people to try and combat these cultural changes. For example, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 days per week. However there are yet to be strong guidelines on the amount of incidental exercise that we should be doing.

I see a number of clients who have sedentary jobs and lifestyles that involve long hours of sitting and inactivity – which puts them at a high risk of metabolic diseases. They often ask if they can reduce their risk by increasing the intensity or duration of their exercise. From emerging scientific literature, the simple answer is no.

A recent study published in 2014 looked at subjects who would replace incidental exercise with vigorous exercise. It was found that one hour of daily physical exercise cannot compensate for the negative effects of inactivity on insulin levels and plasma lipids, if the rest of the day is spent sitting. Reducing inactivity by increasing the time spent walking/standing is more effective than one hour of physical exercise, when energy expenditure is kept constant.

Many studies are now looking at the molecular, physiological and clinical effects of too much sitting (inactive physiology) and comparing it with the effects of structured exercise. In theory, this may be in part because non-exercise activity thermogenesis is generally a much greater component of total energy expenditure than exercise. This is because any type of brief, yet frequent, muscular contraction throughout the day may be necessary to short-circuit unhealthy molecular signals causing metabolic diseases.

There has been a number of research studies on an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which is closely linked with risk of coronary heart disease. LPL is an enzyme that is responsible for the breakdown of circulating triglycerides. The enzyme is extremely sensitive to activity and non-activity. Compelling evidence suggests that decreases in this enzyme are linked with coronary heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

What can you do?

Incidental exercise is key to reducing your risk of metabolic diseases. There are a number of ways to combat these sedentary behaviours, such as:
– Taking the stairs instead of the lift.
– Park the car further away to increase walking distance.
– Put aside 15 minutes for a walk at lunch.
– Use both a standing and seated desk – interchangeably, if possible.

Reducing your seating time will help increase your overall energy expenditure and help combat your risk of metabolic diseases. Increasing standing time also has a number of other benefits such as improving lower back pain. For more ways to improve your lifestyle, overall health and mood, contact your nearest Optimum studio and speak with one of our Exercise Physiologists.

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