A older man driving a car
A older man driving a car
A older man driving a car

Sitting Disease: How a Sedentary Lifestyle Affects Heart Health

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If you find yourself planted behind a desk or stuck in the car for much of your day, you’re not alone. Thanks to the convenience of technology and our modern lifestyles, people in the U.S. are more inactive than ever. 

man doing work on laptop

According to the American Heart Association, sedentary jobs have increased 83 percent since 1950. Physically active jobs now make up less than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, down from roughly half of jobs in 1960.

All of that inactivity is taking a toll on health. Johns Hopkins cardiologist Erin Michos, M.D., M.H.S. , associate director of preventive cardiology at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease , shares research about the dangers of sitting and what you can do about it.

Q: How does so much sitting affect health?

Michos: A large review of studies published in 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that even after adjusting for physical activity, sitting for long periods was associated with worse health outcomes including heart disease , Type 2 diabetes and cancer. Sedentary behavior can also increase your risk of dying, either from heart disease or other medical problems.

Even if you’re doing 30 minutes per day of physical activity, it matters what you do the other 23 hours of the day.

Q: Even fitness buffs can be sedentary, as you recently discovered?

Michos: I consider myself physically active. I run every morning for four or five miles, and I’d pat myself on the back for that. But then I got a step-tracking device and realized I wasn’t moving much the rest of the day.

I have a long commute, so I was spending two hours in my car. On days I’m not doing rounds, I’m doing research or teaching, so I might be sitting at my computer for eight hours. I was easily sitting more than 10 hours a day. Outside of my run, I was getting very few steps the rest of the day.

Q: Does all that sitting cancel out the benefits of your daily running?

Michos: Not entirely. More recent research shows that high levels of exercise can lessen some of the risk. Yet even for people with high levels of activity, there seems to be a threshold around 10 hours of sitting. Research shows that if you hit more than 10 hours, your cardiovascular risk really goes up.

Q: How have you changed your own habits?

Michos: I’ve made progress. I make an effort to get up and move around every hour. I try to find as many excuses as possible to walk throughout the day. I’ll ask myself: Do I really have to send that email to my colleague down the hall, or can I just walk over to her office?

I’ve also been having walking meetings. We’ll do loops around the hospital and talk as we walk. If it’s nice, we’ll walk outside. As a bonus, I find fresh air can boost creativity.

Q: What advice do you have to help others get out of their seats?

Michos: Even if you have to be sitting in front of the computer all day, you can break up the time. You don’t have to replace sitting with time at the gym. There’s benefit to light activity during the day. For every 20 minutes of sitting, try to stand for eight minutes and move around for two minutes.

I recommend everybody track their steps, with a fitness tracker, your phone or a simple pedometer. We usually recommend a target of 10,000 steps a day. But if you’re very sedentary, any improvement will be beneficial. If you only get 2,000 steps a day, try to aim for 4,000.

Take baby steps. It doesn’t have to be vigorous. Just stand up and move your muscles.

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