Well Being

Your Desk Job Is Killing You Even If You Exercise — But It Doesn’t Have To

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Another new study says that regular exercise is no match for the public health scourge of desk jobs. What are we supposed to take away from this? Actually, maybe something hopeful.

Previous studies have shown that spending long stretches of time sitting is bad for health, raising the risk for weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and premature death. In this study, from Northwestern University, researchers wanted to see whether  women who exceed federal physical activity guidelines — at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week — are overall less sedentary than those who don't meet that threshold.

They're not. The researchers concluded that women who work out regularly still spend as much overall time sitting as those who don't exercise regularly. On average, the participants — who wore activity monitors for seven days — spent 146 minutes per week engaged in moderate or vigorous physical activity. But they still spent 63% of their waking hours sitting.

“We now sit even longer than we sleep,” said Lynette Craft, lead author of the study. “Often you don't realize how much time you spending sitting every day.”

So — that's kind of depressing, yes. But let's remember what this study is not saying: It's not saying physical activity doesn't matter. It's just saying that even people who spend regular amounts of time exercising are still spending a lot of time sitting.

Craft said she doesn't want to play down the value of exercise, but people need to do more all day long. “Even if you're exercising regularly, you still have an elevated risk compared to non-sitters,” she explained.

She recommends that people grab every opportunity to stand up, walk and move during the day. “Set a timer so once an hour you'll get up,” she suggested. “Stand up when you're on the phone. Get up during commercial breaks when you're watching television. Stand while you're folding the laundry.”

This advice makes me happy; so often these kinds of studies get twisted into “exercise doesn't make a difference” when it comes to the health risks of too much sitting. This study seems to say exercise is still important, but so is overall movement.

I probably don't realize how much time I spend sitting, but I like to hope that doing things like stretching, pacing, and doing yoga poses between bouts of sitting (and very vigorous fidgeting while I'm sitting) is helpful in keeping my body activated. I like to hope an overall pattern of moving around a lot is as good or better than concrete exercise times (not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course), because I walk miles daily but I can never commit to gyms or classes.

I know cardio is important, and I know that sitting is really bad for us, but I also think it's important to remember that these studies don't usually take broad factors into account. As far as I know, none has looked at physical activity level, sitting and diet / overall lifestyle. Not everyone who commits to regular exercise classes or gym time or runs is necessarily healthy in other ways. Maybe exercise alone can't counter the effect of sitting, but being physically active and eating well and living healthy otherwise can?