Can Too Much Sitting Make You Sick … or Worse?

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Too much time spent sitting can cause serious health risks – actions to take in order to avoid a serious health problem.

By Donna Cardillo, RN

I’m standing up while writing this. Why? Because I’ve just been reading research from the last few years about the serious health risks of spending too much time in the day/week sitting down. And the scary part is that even though I exercise regularly, that may not be enough to counteract the damage done by the long stretches of time I spend sitting at my computer. Clearly, I need to make some changes and you may need to as well, especially if you have a desk job or spend six or more hours each day seated.

The damage/risk comes from a type of deadly metabolic chain reaction. According to inactivity researcher Marc Hamilton in a recent New York Times article, electrical activity in the leg muscles drop, your calorie burning rate drops, and insulin effectiveness drops along with a reduction in vital enzymes that helps to “clean up” harmful lipids and triglycerides in your blood.

All of this can lead to obesity, muscle and bone weakness, certain cancers, diabetes, and a shorter life span – just from sitting too much! One study showed an increase in the risk of blood clots in woman that can travel to the lung (pulmonary embolism), a condition which can be fatal. Another study found that prolonged sitting can lead to heart and circulatory disease similar to that which smokers experience! This is serious stuff.

So what can you do to decrease time spent on your rump? Let’s count the ways.

At Work

1. Some work places are moving to standing work stations, where you can stand at a counter with your computer rather than sitting all day. Some facilities have even gone so far as to have treadmills available at work stations so that you can walk slowly in place while working! I’m not sure I’m coordinated enough for that, but apparently many people are dong it.

If standing work stations are not available to you, speak to your company’s health nurse or facility manager about exploring this.

2. Stand as often as you can while doing your work such as speaking by phone or reading reports.

3. Try hourly “stand and stretch” breaks right at your desk. Move your legs and feet and, if possible, take a short walk to the water cooler, or up and down the corridor.

4. Have/suggest stand-up rather than sit-down meetings. This is a managerial trend being used in many organizations primarily to keep meetings brief. But it is obviously a way to “keep things moving” in many ways, not the least of which is your circulation.

5. Rather than e-mailing a co-worker, walk to his or her office to deliver the message or discuss something in-person when possible, while standing of course!

6. Walk during your breaks and use the stairs rather than the elevator.

7. Learn to do isometric exercises while at your desk (contracting and relaxing muscles in your back side, legs, feet). Flex your feet and ankles and lift your knees in an alternating fashion while sitting.

At Home

1. It would be great to find activities other than TV watching or being glued to your computer or iPhone. But when you do engage in those activities, try to do at least part of them standing up. I keep a medicine (weighted) ball by the TV and often do some passive standing exercises with it while watching the tube rather than reclining on the couch. Other folks plant their treadmill or elliptical machine in proximity to the TV so they can be active while watching.

2. Take frequent standing/walking breaks during periods of extended sitting even if you just walk around your house or yard.

3. Find activities, hobbies or volunteer work that get you moving and on your feet such as line dancing, standing video games, even standing meditation. To learn more about meditation, read an earlier blog I wrote on the subject, “Meditation Not Your Thing? Debunking the Myths”.

4. Use a peddling machine while sitting to exercise your legs. This can even be used while watching TV, reading the newspaper, or on the computer. Even though you’re sitting (if you must), you’re at least using the muscles in your legs.

Remember, this is not about simply getting more exercise. The plain truth is that extended periods of sitting, even when followed by a regular exercise routine, can be deadly. And while extended standing is not possible or practical for many of us, breaking up extended periods of sitting with standing, walking and leg movement can work to minimize it’s negative effects. The “bottom” line: Get off your butt and start moving.

Donna Cardillo, RN travels the world helping nurses to be happy in their careers and to reach their full potential. She is fiercely passionate about nursing and about life in general. You may know Donna as “Dear Donna” at Nursing Spectrum and NurseWeek magazines where she writes a regular column and doles out daily online career advice at She is also an “Expert” Blogger at – the first and only nurse blogging there! Donna is author of 3 books: Your First Year as a Nurse, The ULTIMATE Career Guide for Nurses, and a Daybook for Beginning Nurses.  She has received numerous awards and recognitions but is most proud of being named a Diva in Nursing by the Institute for Nursing in NJ for outstanding achievements and excellence in practice. Donna has been referred to as the Ann Landers and the Dr. Phil of the nursing profession. Regardless of who she’s compared to, there’s no denying that she has her own unique style, indomitable spirit, and uproarious sense of humor.
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