Sitting may be the most underrated health threat of this generation. It subtly erodes people's health over time. On a global level, inactivity may kill more people than cigarettes.
Yet, most of us spend far more time sitting than we do standing, walking or exercising. One study found obese men and women spend less than one minute per day engaged in vigorous activity. We can surely do better. Yet the solution to this massive health challenge may not lie in telling people to "get more exercise."
It turns out being active throughout the day is the key to staying energized. Even 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day will not cut it if you spend the rest of your day sitting. Moving and getting more activity every hour is what will keep you fully charged.
People now spend more time sitting down -- 9.3 hours -- than sleeping in a day. But the human body is not built for a sedentary lifestyle, which creates a host of problems. Even watching your diet and exercising every day is not enough to offset several hours of sitting. A 2014 study estimates that every two hours of sitting cancels out the benefits of 20 minutes of exercise.
When researchers from the National Institutes of Health followed more than 200,000 people for a decade, they found that even seven hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week was not enough to protect against the hazards of excessive sitting. Even the most active group they studied -- people who exercised more than seven hours every week -- had a 50 percent greater risk of death and doubled their odds of dying from heart disease if they were also in the group that sat the most throughout the day.
Consider how the time you spend sitting accumulates over the span of a single day. Maybe you sit down for a while to watch the morning news and eat breakfast. Then you have a commute that adds another hour of sitting. After arriving at work, you spend eight to 10 hours in an office chair. After your commute back home, you have a nice sit-down dinner with family and then watch an hour or two of television before going to bed.
While this is a normal day for some people, I'm hoping you have a bit more activity in your daily routine. When you look at a typical day, you can most likely identify long periods of time when you are seated. What's not as easy to see is the way this "sitting disease" takes a physical toll.
When you sit down, the electrical activity in your leg muscles shuts off quickly. Your rate of burning calories drops to just one per minute. The enzymes that help break down fat fall by 90 percent. After sitting for two hours, your good cholesterol drops by 20 percent.
However, sitting for several hours a day is almost unavoidable for many people, so the challenge is to build as much movement into your day as possible. Little things like stretching and standing a couple of times every hour make a difference.
Walking increases energy levels by about 150 percent. Taking the stairs burns twice as many calories as walking. Instead of viewing a slightly longer walk as something you don't have time for, view it as an opportunity to add a little activity to your day.
Study your surroundings to determine how you can reduce sedentary time. The way life has become built around convenience means that many of the things you need are now within arm's reach. So you can sit for long periods without having to move around and interact with others. Try to turn this around by organizing your home and office to encourage movement more than convenience.
Small bursts of activity will do as much for your mind as they will for your physical energy. Regular breaks from mental tasks have been shown to increase both creativity and productivity. You simply think better when you move more. A deluge of research published over the last few years has shown how even brief periods of activity improve learning and attention and help your brain function more effectively.
Moving more throughout the day starts with simple changes. Walk and stand in meetings to keep focused and energized. Use a headset so you can move around while you're on the phone. If possible, finding a way to work on your computer while standing or walking is even better. The key is to start engineering a little activity into your routine today.
Adapted from Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life