Want to improve your overall health and quality of life? Then get up!
A growing body of research says while it's important to exercise, most of us also need to simply spend less time sitting. One of the researchers looking into the health hazards of sitting is Ric Rosenkranz, a professor at Kansas State University.
On a Wednesday morning, Rosenkranz is teaching a class on Public Health Nutrition at Kansas State University.
“Pick out some more-modifiable risk factors on there, meaning that we could do something to change them.," Rosenkranz says to his class. "What do you see on that list that we could potentially use to drive down the toll of diabetes?”
A little more than 20 minutes into the discussion about health risk factors, Rosenkranz switches things up
“Let us take a break, so stand up and take a break for a minute," he tells the class.
It might seem that Rosenkranz has just veered away from his lesson plan. But in fact he’s illustrating a point about risk factors.
Rosenkranz published two large studies last year looking at the relationship between sitting and health.
“We’re starting to see this pattern where it does look like sitting time is an independent contributor to these negative health outcomes," he says. "It’s strongest right now for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease—and mortality associated with those things as well.”
For reasons not yet fully understood people who spend the most time sitting seem to be the most likely to develop those conditions — even if they exercise most days.
“And I certainly don’t want to ever come across as saying physical activity is not important, because we know that it’s associated with so many health benefits," he says.
Rosenkranz says other researchers are trying to figure out what it is about prolonged sitting that seems to make it unhealthy, even if we exercise regularly.
“Walking briskly for half an hour, of just getting out of the chair and doing something besides sitting is resulting in greater energy potential, so that’s one potential," he says. "There’s a number of other ones that we’re talking about. The enzyme, lipoprotein lipase that is responsible for burning triglycerides in the muscle is blunted or reduced with long periods of sitting.”
In other words, sitting may reduce the ability of muscles to burn fats.
Dr. David Robbins heads the Diabetes Institute at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. He says more research is needed to prove that just getting up is enough to make a difference, but he’s impressed with the work by Rosenkranz and his partners.
“It really is provocative, and the probability of it being correct I think is pretty high. In this case, it raises questions, what is the mechanism? Is it really true? Is it simply standing, or do you have to move around?" says Robbins.
Rosenkranz agrees that the research is not yet definitive. But he says recommending that people stand up and move around isn’t like recommending that someone use a drug before it’s been proven safe. It’s more like the British Navy using lime juice to prevent scurvy.
“It took them 175 years to figure out exactly why that we could prevent scurvy with these different substances like citrus fruits," he says. "It won’t take us that long, hopefully, to figure out exactly what’s going on with sitting and health outcomes.”
While the research continues, Rosenkranz sees no harm in having his students get out of their seats once or twice an hour.
“It may be helpful for their health, and I can’t sit on this knowledge and do nothing with it. I find it reinvigorates them," says Rosenkranz. "And then the third thing is I’m teaching them that they can find ways to impact their environments, or impact those people who are around them, by doing some of these things that change the social norms.”
Rosenkranz says recent figures from the CDC suggest that the average American spends close to eight hours a day sitting down. For office workers, that number is higher — and it tends to increase as people age. He worries that if Americans don’t start making changes soon, some big health problems may be looming….
“The average American is driving some distance in their car. Then they’re sitting at work most of the day in a sedentary behavior state. They come home and they’re tired, and so they continue to sit and watch TV, with some meals sprinkled in there, and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for a lot of negative health outcomes with that kind of scenario," he says.
Even though more hard data about the benefits is needed, Rosenkranz thinks the best advice for all of us is to get up and move around every half hour to an hour. After all, he says, what could it hurt?