From OncoLog, July 2013, Vol. 58, No. 7
House Call: Stand Up for Your Health
Unfortunately, many people’s work requires sitting at a desk for 8 hours each day—plus a long commute sitting in a car or bus. Watching television at home adds to the number of hours spent sitting.
Health risks from sitting
Sitting for long periods of time has been shown to increase the risks of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
One study of men in the Netherlands reported that occupational sitting (6–8 hours per day) increased the risk for colon cancer. Other studies found that women who sat for long periods were also at a higher risk for developing endometrial cancer than were those who did not, regardless of whether the women participated in moderate to vigorous physical activity. A U.S. study found that women who sat for 6 hours or more per day had a 28% higher risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma than did women who sat for less than 3 hours per day.
In fact, exercise alone does not counter the increased cancer risks of prolonged sitting. The American Cancer Society published a study in 2010 in which mortality rates during the 14-year follow-up period were lower for participants who exercised regularly than for those who did not. However, study participants who sat for 8 hours or more per day had higher mortality rates than those who sat for less than 3 hours. In other words, physical exercise seems to reduce but not eliminate the negative effects of sitting.
Minimize your risk
Even if your work requires you to sit for long periods, there are steps you can take to protect your health. “Taking a 1- to 2-minute break from sitting every hour may help lower your cancer risk,” said Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Behavioral Science and the director of the Center for Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and Survivorship at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “That’s because even short spurts of movement can help minimize insulin resistance and long-term weight gain—factors that make it harder for the body to fight off cancer.”
To get in the habit of taking breaks, try setting alarms for every hour to remind yourself to stand up and stretch a bit, go for a short walk, or do other simple exercises. Smart phone applications can send these reminders and also help track your activity. Try standing up and pacing in the office if you have to make a phone call, or schedule walking meetings with coworkers.
Dr. Basen-Engquist suggested investing in a pedometer to track how much activity you fit into your day apart from time dedicated to exercise. Most experts recommend walking 10,000 steps per day, roughly equivalent to 5 miles.
Taking the stairs when possible, instead of an elevator or escalator, also may ward off the effects of prolonged sitting. “Taking the stairs gets your heart pumping, builds muscle, strengthens bones, and burns calories. And the more often you take the stairs, the bigger the payoff,” Dr. Basen-Engquist said.
At home, it’s important to avoid sitting in front of the television or computer for long periods. If you do watch television after work, try getting up to stretch, lift weights, or jump rope during the commercials.
In addition to breaking up long periods of sitting, Dr. Basen-Engquist recommended 30 minutes of exercise each day. “For exercise, moderate intensity is better than light intensity,” she said.
For people who cannot fit regular workouts into their schedules, she suggested taking three brisk 10-minute walks during the day. “Remember, it’s important to get creative and find ways to stay active,” Dr. Basen-Engquist said.
— J. Delsigne