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Most of us don't have any problem understanding how people who spend most of the day seated and don't get exercise are at risk for deadly health problems. New research, however, finds that working out after work does not remove the risk.

Scientists taking a second look at accumulated research have concluded that prolonged sitting increases risk of death from all causes, and also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The elevated risk associated with sitting for long periods is not canceled out by exercise.

Publishing a statistical review of 41 published research studies called a meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers noted that, as expected, people who get the least exercise have the highest rates of all-cause mortality. (This finding does not explain whether people who don't exercise get sick or people who get sick don't exercise.)

The surprising result of the study was that spending time in a seated position, regardless of physical activity otherwise, is also a risk factor.

Just How Unhealthy Is It to Sit Around All Day?

Aviroop Biswas of the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto in Canada Canada and coworkers looked at 14 studies of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, 14 studies of  cancer, and 13 studies of rates of death from all causes. Almost all of these studies relied on survey data in which respondents estimated their own physical activity, rather than having expert observers measure physical activity.

When Biswas and colleagues combined all the data, they found that spending long periods seated every day was associated with, on average:

  • 14 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease,
  • 18 percent greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease,
  • 13 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with cancer,
  • 17 percent greater risk of death from cancer, and
  • 91 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Among people who sit all day but find time to work out later, on average their was a 30 percent reduction in health risk caused by sitting too long, but even exercisers had a 10 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with heart disease, a 12 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease, a 9 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with cancer, a 12 percent greater risk of drying from cancer, and a 60 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Exercise helps people who have sedentary jobs, but it does not completely cancel out the detrimental effects of spending long periods sitting down every day.

Sedentary, "Sitting" Jobs Long Known To Be Associated With Higher Mortality

Researchers have been able to show for a very long time that spending a lot of time sitting down on the job is associated with higher risk of death. A study of London bus drivers in the 1950's found that they had a two-fold higher risk of death from myocardial infarction (heart attack) compared to other Londoners who had more active jobs. The evidence for the danger of spending lots of time seated has only accumulated over the years since those first studies over 60 years ago.

Still, it seems unlikely that spending time at a desk or behind a wheel or at a console every day is an "either or" factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and death. It seems more likely that there must be some way to offset the detrimental effects of having to stay seated at work.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Biswas A, Oh PI, Faulkner GE, Bajaj RR, Silver MA, Mitchell MS, Alter DA. Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2015 Jan 20. 162(2):123-32. doi: 10.7326/M14-1651. PMID: 25599350.
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