Sometimes you just can't get a break...
That's the way I feel after reading an article my colleagues from the American Cancer Society and other experts wrote in today's edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology. The topic? The relationship between the time you spend sitting during the day and your chances of premature death.
The bottom line? If you sit all day, you are in real trouble even if you exercise regularly. For those of us who try to exercise regularly, it's possibly one of the most discouraging reports I have read in a long time.
Let's get personal for a moment.
If you follow this blog, you know that I have had a life long battle with weight. One of the keystones of trying to keep my body under control (my genes notwithstanding) has been to exercise regularly. I am pretty good at the commitment-most of the time-especially if I am working from my office as opposed to "road warrioring" around the country. But when I work from the office, it is not unusual for me to spend 8-10 hours a day sitting on my you-know-what.
OK, so there are the occasional walks to get a cup of coffee or whatever. But the rest of my day is spent looking at a computer on my desk and trying to make some sense out of the world around me.
Then there is my "leisure time" at home. Usually, it's about 2 or 3 hours at the end of the day, including dinner and watching some television before it's off to bed and starting another day. Stuck in between all of this excitement is hopefully an hour a day plus/minus on a Precor machine, trying to get my daily step total over 10,000 (I wear a pedometer to keep me honest).
Now, I thought I was doing myself some good with the exercise thing. Exercise helps me feel better and helps control my weight (doesn't seem to take it off, however. That relies mainly on eating less, which is sometimes difficult to do). Exercise also makes me feel that I have been doing something for my overall health, or at least that's what I thought the research has been telling me: more exercise leads to better health, and less risk of bad diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and so on.
So what did my dear colleagues write that has me so upset?
They noted that current public health guidelines say a lot about increasing physical activity but don't say much about sitting around watching TV, or working on the computer.
Since they are the excellent researchers that they are, they decided to study the question by examining data in our CPS II cohort, which has followed 1.2 million people since 1982. Of that group, they had detailed activity information on about 123,000 people. Then, they carefully examined how much physical activity those folks had on a regular basis along with how much time they sat during the day, and compared that to their risk of death from any cause.
They found that men and women who spent the least time sitting around were thinner, less likely to be smokers, more likely to be employed, and ate less. People in this large group didn't do a lot of strenuous activity. For the most part, walking was their exercise of choice.
The researchers reported that there was a direct relationship between leisure time sitting and a higher risk of death, more so in women than men. And, for physical activity, the more you exercised the lower your chances of death.
However (and this is the big "however" that has me so upset), time spent sitting trumped physical activity when you looked at the impact of both of these factors together. So no matter that you were physically active, the longer you sat the greater the chances you would die. When I looked at numbers that would characterize me (sitting more than 6 hours a day, exercising about 35 "met hours" a week), my increased risk of death is about 23%.
I wouldn't exactly call that news to brighten your day.
Maybe I should rethink my philosophy about how much I prefer to be able to sit in my office rather than travelling on the road.
Truth be told, I spend a lot of time travelling. Granted, much of that time is spent sitting on an airplane or going to meetings, but I clearly am on my feet a lot more under those circumstances than I am when I spend time at the office. And then there are weekends and holidays, where fortunately I am reasonably active and on my feet most of the time (except for those wonderful opportunities to take a nap on a Saturday and/or Sunday afternoon).
Now, to be honest, there is a big "hook" in my assessment of this research.
The participants were asked the question about their leisure sitting time, not their time sitting at work. I don't know that that gives me a lot of comfort, but there remains the outside possibility that I am overreacting to this thing (I have been known to do that from time to time). But to me, sitting is sitting, no matter where or when you do it. I can't imagine that sitting between 8 AM and 7PM is much different than sitting between 7PM and midnight. And anyone who spends on average more than 6 hours a day of their leisure time sitting clearly has too much leisure time and needs to get a life.
My friends who wrote this study also pointed out that the more you sit and watch TV the chances are you will eat more and gain weight. They go on to report that we are watching more TV than we were in the past. They also note that the workplace is changing, and there are more people like me sitting at their desks than engaged in heavy physical labor, as was the case in the past. And while we are less physically active at work, we haven't picked up the slack by exercising more in our leisure time. (Yes, there is legitimate scientific research that backs up every one of those observations.)
Their solution to this weighty problem?
"Public health messages and guidelines should be refined to include reducing time sitting in addition to promoting physical activity. Because a sizeable fraction of the population spends much of their time sitting, it is beneficial to encourage sedentary individuals to stand up and walk around as well as to reach optimal levels of physical activity."
I could have said it a bit more simply: "Time to get off your butt if you want to save your life." But that would not have been quite as scientific.