Commentary: Avoiding the lure of an easy chair

The Rock Hill HeraldJanuary 20, 2013 

This is going to shock you. You’d better sit down.

On second thought, don’t. It might kill you.

Well, not necessarily right away. But several recent studies indicate that sitting for long periods each day could considerably shorten your life.

Here’s the scary catch-phrase: “Sitting is the new smoking.” Researchers claim to have evidence that sitting for long periods on a regular basis can be even more dangerous than smoking.

People who sit for most of the day are 54 percent more likely to get a heart attack than people who sit for less than three hours a day, according to a study by researchers at Louisiana State University.

“People who sit for a prolonged period of time throughout the day are predisposed to developing diabetes, and those people who have diabetes, their diabetes gets worse,” said Dr. James Levine, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist who has spent more than 15 years studying the grisly effects of sitting.

And still more: Sitting on our duffs could make them grow. Levine notes that sitting puts pressure on body tissues that make fat cells, causing them to produce more fat.

And women allegedly are more at risk than men. One cancer prevention study indicated that men who sat for six or more hours a day were 18 percent more likely to die during that period than men who sat for less than three hours. But women who sat for six or more hours were 37 percent more likely to die.

Some researchers offer the following advice: Don’t sit. They recommend work stations that require people to stand. Some even go so far as to suggest installing treadmills to use while we work.

This is worrisome news, especially for those of us who sit in front of computers for most of the working day. And then we go home at night and ... sit in front of computers.

I, for one, also spend a good deal of time sitting in front of the TV set watching educational documentaries, opera and “Swamp People.” But I try to get up frequently for beer and salty snacks so I don’t become too sedentary.

But while the danger of sitting too long seems somewhat self-evident, I wonder if it might not be a bit overstated, especially the claim that it is more dangerous than smoking. It seems that we should be able to counteract the ill effects of sitting with a little standing or, even better, a little exercise.

At work, when my duff, which ostensibly is growing at this very moment, begins to feel like it is made out of cast iron, I get up and walk down the hall. I also have a tendency to jiggle my leg, a habit which, although it drives my wife crazy, might just prolong my life.

It has been well established that a sedentary lifestyle can cause health problems over time. But just how do the researchers come up with empirical data such as: sitting for six hours makes us 18 percent more likely to die?

Did they have one group of men sit for six hours a day in a lab until some of them died? That is not an entirely preposterous question. It seems doubtful that any of these conclusions are the result of a formal scientific study. They would have to be observational studies based at least in part on self-described habits.

In other words, before we resolve never to sit down again, we might want to view some of the more alarming findings from these studies with a bit of healthy skepticism. And if your job requires you to sit for several hours each day, don’t resign just yet.

Again, we don’t really need a plentitude of scientific studies to tell us that too much inactivity is bad for us. We all know that one of life’s most useful axioms is, use it or lose it. We know that idle hands are the devil’s workshop (although you probably could have active hands even while sitting).

My parents instilled those values in me throughout my youth. I can just hear their sage advice: “Why don’t you get up off of ... that chair and (A) mow the lawn; (B) get a job; (C) do something more useful than sitting there watching educational documentaries and eating potato chips.”

The claims about the dangers of sitting might be somewhat exaggerated. But, in the end, so to speak, it’s doubtful that sitting less could hurt.

So, if an endocrinologist challenges you to stop sitting down so much, stand up to him!

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