middle-aged man working with laptop in cafe

Should you worry about sitting?

We’re starting to understand how sitting too much can put your health at risk. The good news is that the solution is simple.

For the past 60 years or so, researchers have been studying the health benefits of physical activity. I am talking about any type of physical activity – walking, cycling, housework, etc – and not just “exercise”. 

Travis Saunders

Travis Saunders

No surprise, people who are physically active tend to live longer, healthier lives than those who are inactive. What’s more, substantial health benefits come from even small amounts of physical activity. The health benefits of physical activity are so impressive that until recently, we believed that it didn’t really matter what you did the rest of the time, so long as you got in a workout at some point in the day.

In the past 10 years or so, however, we’ve begun to realize that it’s not quite so simple. Physical activity is still amazingly good for you. But we’re starting to realize that the rest of the day matters as well.

For example, take the figure below from a study of 17,000 Canadians. At baseline, all participants were asked how much time they spend sitting on a daily basis. Researchers then followed them for the next 12 years, and found that those who sat the most had 55 per cent higher risk of death than those who sat the least.


Graph showing rate of death compared to time sitting

You might wonder whether those who sat the least were also the most physically active, which could explain why those people had lower risk of dying during the follow-up period. That doesn’t seem to be the case though.

The figure below shows the same data, but this time broken into people who were physically active (in red) and those who were physically inactive (in blue). The active people had a lower risk of death over all (the red bars are generally lower than the blue bars), which supports the idea that activity is really good for you. But even among those active people, the risk of death increased as daily sitting time increased.

So physical activity is good for you, but your risk of death still goes up the more time you spend sitting. The best situation is to get at least some amount of physical activity, while trying to minimize your sitting time as much as possible.

Graph showing rate of death compared to time spent sitting

Lots of other studies have supported these findings, including a recent Canadian paper that combined the results of 47 different studies, concluding that sedentary behaviour increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and premature death even among those who are physically active.

Simple fixes

What does this all mean? On the downside, it means that sitting is bad for your health. But the flip side is that it is probably easier to sit less than to do more physical activity. You don’t need a gym membership or special equipment to spend less time sitting. And research suggests that even just breaking up your sitting time (for example, getting up off the couch every 20-30 minutes for a short walk) has measurable health benefits, especially related to blood sugar levels.

Something as simple as watching a bit less TV could actually improve your health. Watching TV seems to stimulate food intake, so the more TV you watch the more likely you are to overeat. It might also make it harder to fall asleep, which can further impact both appetite and activity levels the next day.

So if you’re looking for a simple way to improve your health, try to cut back on your TV viewing (especially before bedtime), and take frequent breaks to get up and move around when you do watch TV. And when you’re ready, add in a bit of physical activity for the complete package.



5 Responses

    1. Sharon Hollingsworth

      Hi Daniel and thanks for your interest in our blog posts. Unfortunately we don’t have the information you are requesting regarding the identify of the person in the photo. Thanks again for checking in! Sincerely, Sharon at the Heart and Stroke Foundation

  1. teresa

    HI, ……interesting article…however, what if you are chained to a desk for 8+ hours/day? does this qualify one for Workman’s Compensation? I have worked as a secretary for 31 years and had a heart attack almost 3 years ago. I had 6 stents and the discharging doctor at the hospital sent me back to work ONE WEEK after my heart attack. Something fell through the tracks. My cardiologist did not know, when I went back for my 3 month visit, my cardiologist asked if I was ready to go back to work. I told her that I was back at it, one week after my hospital discharge ,which I had to plead for, she was surprised but said, “we do not want you to become a cardiac cripple”. Is this correct? Since I have been back at work, I have numbness in the left side of my face and light headedness and pinching sensations all around left side and numbness/tingling in my left arm. My GP said this is normal. Is it normal to go back to work one week after heart attack/full time, not part time? And, I am doing the same thing that I did before my heart attack. No change at work. My stress level is more than before as well. Does this qualify me for workers comp?

    1. Sharon Hollingsworth

      Hi Teresa,
      Thank you for your comments in response to our recent blog post “Should you worry about sitting?” We are sorry to hear that you are still experiencing health issues since your heart attack and we strongly recommend that you seek the advice of your healthcare provider. The Heart and Stroke Foundation provides information on heart disease and stroke in general, based on the best science available today. We welcome your inquiries and comments, but unfortunately we are not qualified to answer questions related to your specific health concerns. Thank you again, Teresa, for your interest in the Foundation’s blog and we send along our best wishes for better health in the days ahead. Sincerely, Sharon at the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

  2. Pingback : 5 simple ways to reduce sedentary time | Fitness | THE Heart&Stroke Blog

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